Geoff Brown
The Times
February 2014

Richard Strauss, CPE Bach, Gluck and Andrzej Panufnik are among the composer anniversaries being celebrated this year. Beethoven, 244 in December, isn’t one of them, butwe’re already knee-deep in CDs of his sonatas. Hyperion presents the five cello sonatas with Steven Isserlis partnered by Robert Levin on a modern copy of an historically appropriate fortepiano. Chandos weighs in with the second of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s three chronologically arranged boxes exploring the 32 sonatas, performed on a modern Steinway.

Isserlis commands attention first, if only for the extraordinary bass growl of his cello’s bottom register. It’s like the roar of a bear with a stomach ache and can easily swamp Levin’s bright pinprick sounds—not always helpful in the early Op 5 sonatas where the piano takes the lead in Beethoven’s games of give-and-take. Isserlis’s love of big, throbbing gestures is equally apparent further up his cello. But he never chews the scenery and the music’s drama fully deserves the duo’s strong emotions, firm accenting and virile leaps.

Levin supplies his own muscular music-making. The fortepiano’s sound may lack depth but it certainly boasts sharp teeth. There’s hushed delicacy too, just as there is in Isserlis’s cello when Beethoven chooses to relax. Try, for example, the gravely affecting adagio of Op 102, No 2, the only sustained slow movement in the set. Not a bear in sight.