This remarkable set contains probably the most significant recordings of these masterpieces ever issued. Without my going into the minutiae of historically informed performances, the fact remains that in these works (as in his Sonatas for violin and piano) Beethoven virtually single-handedly moved the musical fulcrum of the combination of solo stringed instrument and keyboard from the keyboard to the stringed instrument. Thus we refer to all of these Sonatas as ‘Cello Sonatas’, a phrase unknown to Beethoven and his contemporaries, even though those that comprise his Op. 5 are different in essence and instrumental balance from the three successive Sonatas.
Hyperion, in presenting these works, entitle all five as ‘Cello Sonata’, by which name they are individually known today throughout the world, but in engaging Robert Levin as fortepianist the historically more accurate sound of his instrument (one which the composer gradually came to regard as no more than a distant memory owing to his encroaching deafness) implies a greater acknowledgement of the care taken in authenticity in these performances. And it shows. Steven Isserlis is not one to force his personality upon everything he plays, with the result that all such music has a similar patina of expression, and in the Op. 5 Sonatas he plavs a perfect role to Levin’s more significant part, yet at all times he infuses the cello line with character and a full tone which makes a perfect complement to the inherent musical argument.
We may hear that, for examples, in the second and third movements of the G minor, which on this occasion receives a well-nigh perfect performance. Levin is absolutely compelling here, characterful playing which does not impinge upon the musical development, and—allied to Isserlis’s knowing partnership—the music is revealed as being amongst the greatest of the relatively youthful composer’s output.
When we come to the Op 69 and, more importantly, the Op 102 Sonatas, the balance of the musical argument has shifted. No doubt inspired by his growing knowledge of the capabilities of the cello in the Triple Concerto, Beethoven takes his discoveries to new levels, and the nature of his cello writing assumes greater significance than it does in the Op 5 works. Therefore, the cellist has to take a greater degree of control, and the pianist (or, in tins instance, fortepianist) a lesser one, and in these performances that vitally important aspect of the music is wonderfully conveyed. Isserlis is quite superb here, especially throughout Op 69 and in the deeply moving account of the slow movement of the D major: both players ‘get’ Beethoven’s rather tongue-in-cheek beginning to the fugato which ends the work (the last music he wrote for this combination)—growing to a powerful demonstration of the human spirit (as Isserlis alludes to in his excellent booklet notes) triumphing over adversity.
These great masterpieces receive splendid accounts from these masterly musicians and the three lighter sets of variations find Beethoven and his instrumentalists in less profound mood. They are most winningly performed, and this exceptionally well-filled set is brought to an end with the rarely heard cello version of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, Op 17. As with Mozart and his Leutgeb concertos, there is an element of lighter humour running through this work, which in this authentic transcription, and in this performance, is revealed in a wholly endearing manner, bringing this trulv outstanding set of discs to a splendid conclusion. The recorded quality and instrumental balance are first-class, as we have invariably come to expect from this company.