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Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 2

Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Wo046

Beethoven’s second set of cello and piano variations on a tune derived from Mozart’s Magic Flute was composed in 1801, five years after his previous Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen variations of 1796. In this set, Beethoven picks another simple folk-like tune, a duet between Pamina, who has just learned that Tamino loves her, and Papageno, who laments that he can’t even get a Friday-night date. Despite this difference in their amatory status, there is one thing they can both agree on in song, and that is that “Love sure is grand, isn’t it?”

The original form of the duet – with each singer presenting the tune separately, then both singing together – is preserved in the variations that follow. Of course, when you are ‘covering’ a Mozart tune, the bar for wit and elegance is set rather high. So Beethoven is on his best behaviour here, combining the twin virtues of contrapuntal ingenuity and textural variety in the best Austrian tradition. Thus, while fulfilling the formal expectations of the genre – figural ornament, a variation in the minor mode, a lyrical adagio preceding a toe- tapping finale – he makes sure that each variation is as different as possible from its neighbours, by giving each a distinct rhythmic and textural profile.

A good example is the first variation, which treats the theme like chopped liver, doling it out in punchy little rhythmic chunks and leaving you dazzled by a musical mosaic that echoes the opening four-note motive in virtually every bar. Variation 2 can’t get enough of runs while Variation 3 sings the praises of the melodic ornament known as the turn. Variation 4, the inevitable minore, takes a walk on the dark side in the unusual key of E flat minor to offer a portrait of psychological fragility and lyrical introspection. Here is where the cello gets to unburden itself emotionally in the deep bass register, accompanied by a rather spooky, bare-bones accompaniment in the piano. Variation 5 has no time
for moping and picks up the pace in a merry game of tag between the instruments. The variations reach their emotional epicentre in the lavishly ornamented and lyrical Adagio of Variation 6 before the expansive Variation 7 finale skips its way home – not without a bit of minor- mode turbulence, mind you, in its middle section.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven’s two cello sonatas of Op. 5 share many characteristics. Each, for example, has a two-movement plan comprising an introductory adagio leading directly to a sonata-form allegro, followed by a rondo finale. But if the first of the set, the cello sonata in F major, is distinctly ‘Mozartean’ in inspiration, the second in G minor is more than a little ‘Handelian,’ and understandably so.

Both were written in 1796 at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, where a production of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was on offer at the Berlin Singakademie in the same year that Beethoven visited. King Friedrich Wilhelm was a charter member of the Handel fan club who had introduced George Frederick’s oratorios to the Prussian capital. He was also a more- than-passable cellist to boot, having been taught while still a princeling-in-short-pants by the virtuoso court cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818), for whom the Op. 5 sonatas were written. What more attractive model could he adopt for a sonata to be performed by Duport himself in front of the King?

What Beethoven admired most in Handel was his ability to evoke an emotion, or construct an entire dramatic scene, out of the merest scrap of a motive, such as the three-note descending phrase that occurs so often in Judas Maccabaeus. Angus Watson finds that this motive structures much of the melodic material in Beethoven’s G minor sonata, as well. But more telling still is Beethoven’s pervasive use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the sonata’s opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, in clear imitation of the French overture (also in G minor) that begins Handel’s oratorio.

Despite its mere two movements, there is nothing small-scale about this sonata. Beethoven’s austere and pathos-filled Adagio, dominated by a descending scale pattern and marked by many dramatic pauses, is just one of the ways in which Beethoven adds structural heft to its first movement. The exposition of the immediately following sonata-form movement virtually overflows with melodic ideas: there are two in its first theme group and two in its second, while the development section erupts with an intensity of emotion and virtuosity of piano writing that hint at Beethoven’s mature ‘heroic’ style. Capping off the first movement is a coda in which Beethoven lets his instrumentalists mull over what they have just played for the last time before the movement ends, grimly and grudgingly, with a stiffly Baroque tierce de Picardie in G major.

After all that heavy drama, Beethoven serves up a good-natured rondo finale with a sturdy opening refrain of small range that manages to thump and twinkle in turn. With a repetitive structure playfully phrased in alternating fragments of forte and piano, it drums its way into your head to become the most memorable melody of the movement. The intervening episodes, and even the refrain theme itself are continually developed and varied – sometimes cast in the minor mode, sometimes with the instruments chasing each other in canon – as if in a sonata movement. This finale simply overflows with rhythmic vitality, due to a near-constant chatter of rapid passagework on the part of both piano and cello.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in C major Op. 102 No. 1

At Op. 102 we have arrived at ‘late’ Beethoven, a period in the composer’s life in which his deafness left him alone to dream in a sonic world all his own where he expressed his musical thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the wilful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.

The first of the Op. 102 sonatas is in two movements, like the sonatas for cello and piano of Op. 5, but in this work each movement begins with a slow introduction, or rather a free fantasy. The dreamy and meditative theme announced teneramente by the solo cello gives out in its first bar the main motives – a stepwise descent of a 4th followed by a stepwise ascent of the same interval – that will recur throughout the work as a whole. With the indication dolce cantabile, this Andante introduction is a virtual love-duet between the two instruments, that sing together in 3rds, or echo back to each other their billing and cooing, in a placid C major.

All the more is the surprise, then, when the Allegro arrives with an aggressive theme in octaves and unisons between cello and piano, in A minor. This theme has an urgent, restless quality that dominates the rest of the movement, but seems ‘misshapen’ somehow, with its sudden downward leap and awkward run-up ornament at the end of the phrase. All anxiety and bustle, with little time for lyrical repose, it rushes through a compressed development section and even its coda is tense and seems to end abruptly and wilfully.

The slow introduction that begins the second movement is more poised and seriously reflective. The piano and cello seem at first to be in duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, then each heads in its own direction, the cello ruminating deeply in the bass while the piano seeks ever higher terrain. They are brought together when they both ‘remember’ the opening Andante theme, eventually dissolving together into a chummy triple trill.

The cheek-to-cheek rhapsodizing is interrupted, though, by the perky motive that will pervade the finale: a stepwise rising 4th. Once this movement starts, we are on psychologically healthy ground. Beethoven uses the nimble rising-4th motive in many, mostly humorous or ironic ways. One of the most ingenious is when the cello plays a drone in the bass, as if it’s slowly looking around for the piano then quickly turns around and just misses ‘tagging’ it (imitatively) with the motive. In this context the fugato that follows is anything but dead serious. Another game of tag follows later and the two instruments end the movement best of friends.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in D major Op. 102 No. 2

Beethoven’s last cello sonata presents us with a more traditional layout of three movements, widely contrasting both in compositional style and in mood. A brisk and confident sonata-form first movement is succeeded by a deeply lyrical slow movement, and the sonata ends with a fugue.

The perky fanfares that open the work – four 16th notes and a big leap – prepare us for surprises but the cello immediately strikes a more conciliatory lyrical tone and the entire exposition proceeds in spurts, alternating between forthright bravado strutting cheek by jowl at close quarters with less aggressive melodic impulses. A development section is where you expect a composer to mix things up a bit but this movement’s development section is actually where you start to feel for the first time the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic unfolding in place of the expositions’ stop-and-go pattern of delivery. This new ‘can’t we all just get along’ mood continues into a recapitulation where the gaps are filled in and the pulse remains more continuous. The harmonic wanderings
of the coda promise mystery, but then – like an adult amusing a child by hiding his face behind his hands only to spring out gleefully into full view – Beethoven steers the movement at the last moment to a resolute cadence in the home key.

What follows is the only real traditional slow movement in all the cello sonatas, a place where the cello gets to display its lyrical gifts in a pool of light at centre stage. The movement’s solemnly paced melody of even 8th notes, with a pause at the end of each phrase, suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm accompaniment it soon receives from the piano. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and with melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. Relief arrives in a middle section in the major mode that restores a happier tone to the proceedings. When the opening section returns, however, the gravity of its ominous message is reinforced by low-register rumblings in the piano, and its ‘limping tic’ has only got worse.

The last movement begins with a simple rising scale presented in turn by the cello and the piano, a musical gesture reminiscent of how a magician innocently shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. The magic trick here is that this cheerful little melodic fragment, which comes as such a break from all the eye-brow-knitting seriousness of the slow movement, is soon revealed to be the start of a right proper, ‘learned’, fugue subject. It’s as if you had just witnessed a circus clown pulling off his multi- coloured uniform to reveal a diplomat’s tie-and-tails outfit, complete with dangling medals, underneath.

This fugue subject is metrically a bit ‘off’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar, giving it ample forward momentum but without a regular rhythmic patterning. It is a theme both dainty and merry, at the same time. The merriment gets a bit crowded after a while, though, like too many people crammed into a Volkswagen, and the counterpoint gets quite gritty, leading to a traffic jam of strettos in contrary motion. When the dust settles, a less jumpy, more serene countersubject in long note values arrives at the door to lead everyone into a concluding section vibrating with trills to celebrate the newfound spirit of contrapuntal amity with which the work ends.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

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