This set contains some of the finest Beethoven performances you are likely to hear. Steven Isserlis is on blazing form: every note lives, every movement is characterised with infectious relish; his range is breathtaking. The ensemble with Robert Levin is dynamic, intimate, often electric. There’s a sense of two powerful minds intensely engaged in Beethoven's dialogue, even though Levin is restricted by his replica 1805 Walter & Sohn fortepiano.
At its best, it’s unbeatable: highlights include a crazily impetuous finale to the Sonata Op 5 No. 1; Sonata Op 5 No 2’s limping introduction; a radiant opening to Op 69 which ends in an Allegro vivace of festive fire; the dreamy wildness of Op 102 No 1's ‘improvised’ slow movement and a Op 102 No 2 of tragic violence.
The fortepiano comes into its own in the delightful sets of Magic Flute Variations. And in the Op 69 Scherzo, Levin repeats the cross-bar tied notes as Beethoven indicated, an effect that would be too emphatic on the piano. When the texture is open and linear, the blend of sounds is finely balanced, but when it thickens it’s strained and tinny. In the cello’s volcanic passages in the first Allegro of Op 69 we miss the piano’s underpinning depth. The accompanying figures in the Allegro of Op 5 No 1 chug murkily, in contrast to Isserlis’s elegance. Sometimes Levin doesn’t quite match Isserlis’s vitality, particularly in the finale of the Op 102 No 1.
The slow, descending scales that open the G minor expose the instrument’s tonal rawness; one yearns for the luminous touch of András Schiff (ECM), and he and Miklós Pérenyi’s faster, clearer fugue in Op 102 No 2—here it’s rhythmically elastic but very noisy.
There isn’t a better version with fortepiano, but for those who prefer the piano, this will take some getting used to.