As Steven Isserlis mentions in his pleasantly chatty yet informative notes to his recording, Beethoven gave to cellists a rare bounty: sonatas from each of his three creative periods. This is not true of violinists, whose last sonata written for them was a product of the composer’s Middle Period (even if written at the pinnacle of that period, 1812, in the same timeframe that saw the completion of the Archduke Trio and the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies). It’s no accident that Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No 3, Op 69—penned just four years earlier and in the virile, extrovert style that characterizes other chamber works of this period (the Archduke Trio and the Razumovsky Quartets come immediately to mind)—is the most popular with performers and audiences alike. The oddly designed Op 5 Sonatas, with which Beethoven essentially created the genre, and the experimental Op 102 Sonatas play second fiddle, so to speak, to Op 69.
While I’m probably in a minority, I prefer the Op 5 works to those of Op 102. It seems to me that Beethoven’s attempt to push the envelope of Classical style bore much more satisfying fruit in his late piano sonatas and quartets than in these two late cello sonatas. There’s a certain scruffiness about the tiny (by Beethoven standards) Op 102, No 1. It seems to hark back to the pattern of the two earliest sonatas in commencing with an extended slow introductory movement followed by a scurrying Allegro vivace. But instead of immediately concluding with another fast movement, Op 102, No 1, segues into a brief slow movement before launching the bookend Allegro vivace with which it concludes. If the Op 5 Sonatas seem unbalanced in construction, Op 102, No 1, seems just as unbalanced, but defiantly so. And again, I may be in a minority (despite my criticisms) in preferring it to Op 102, No 2. That darn fugal finale of No 2 is the sticking point for me. Late in his career, Beethoven was studying the fugues of Bach and Handel, attempting to give this beloved Baroque musical form new, distinctly Classical trappings. At his most effective, Beethoven created movements of great power and momentum (the last movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Consecration of the House Overture, Grosse Fuge). In a less effective vein, he just comes off sounding pedantic, as in the finale of Op 102, No 2. Let me know if your reaction is different; I’m always willing to be persuaded to change my mind.
However, there’s such an infectious swagger to the finale of Op. 102, No. 1, that I can’t resist, which is pretty much how I feel about the romping Allegro finales of Op. 5, Nos. 1 and 2. In these musical juggernauts, the superb ensemble playing of Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin is especially breathtaking. The duo probably work hard to achieve the kind of balance of sound Beethoven had in mind, but it all seems so effortless, and so joyously executed, that work is the last thing you’ll think of as you listen. This is sheer, exuberant play by two consummate musicians. Isserlis wields his Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius (on loan from the Royal Academy of Music) with a slightly throaty (or is it fruity?) tone that meshes well with Levin’s powerhouse traversal of the keyboard. I know Robert Levin to be a master of the pianoforte; but here, he outdoes himself, bringing wonderful color and interpretive range to this copy of a Walter & Sohn fortepiano from around the time Beethoven penned his Appassionata and Waldstein Sonatas.The sets of variations and especially that comparative rarity, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Horn Sonata for cello and piano, are richly rewarding appendices in this well-filled pair of discs from the always enterprising Hyperion label. The arrangement of the Horn Sonata, by the way, has such a different character—less assertive, more yielding—as to be almost a different composition and is therefore most welcome. As is this entire, indispensable set (excellently recorded, by the way, in that perfect recording venue, Henry Wood Hall in London).