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Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 1

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on a Theme
from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus Wo0 45

In 1796 Beethoven paid a visit to the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, and cellists the world over are glad that he did. From this visit resulted a number of works for cello and piano that set the world of between- the-knees string playing on a new path with three masterful compositions: the Variations on a Theme from Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ and the cello sonatas Op. 5 No. 1 in F major and No. 2 in G minor.

Beethoven’s reverence for Handel is well documented, and his choice of the stirring chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” for his variations might well have been prompted by a recent production of Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna organized by Baron von Swieten in 1794. His choice of the cello to pair with the piano was undoubtedly influenced by the King’s own preference for this instrument. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist and a notable patron of the arts, His Berlin court glistened with the lustre of cellists Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) and his brother Jean-Louis Duport (1749- 1819), one of whom (historians can’t decide which) collaborated with Beethoven in performing his new cello and piano works before the King.

If the theme of this set of variations sounds familiar, it might well be because you have sung it in church, as the Easter hymn “Thine Be the Glory”. The tune has a three- part A-B-A structure, with the B-section dipping briefly into the minor mode. In his variations Beethoven leaves the harmonies and phrase structure largely intact, preferring to let the dramatic narrative unfold through accelerations in tempo and alternations between solo melody and more conversational imitative textures.

A dramatic coup de théâtre arrives right away when the first variation is played by the piano … alone. This makes the audience wait till the second variation for the entrance of the cello, now cast in the role of an opera diva introduced by a long ritornello. While there is a lot of brilliant writing for the piano – Beethoven was writing for his own hand, after all – the cellist, too, gets his place in the sun as a virtuoso in the rapid-fire triplets of Variation 7.

The apogee of lyrical intensity comes in the poised and elegant Variation 11 Adagio, the longest variation of the set, with its highly ornamented melody and harp-like arpeggios in the piano. The cello lives up to its opera- diva billing in the B-section with an intense outburst of emotion worthy (and reminiscent) of Albinoni’s famous Adagio. Calculating that the the King’s toes tap better in threes, Beethoven changes the time signature to 3/8 for the final rondo-like romp that ends with a thrilling high trill in the piano before the final chords.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1

Beethoven’s two sonatas Op. 5 of 1796 signal a growth spurt in the development of the cello repertoire, as they represent the first examples of a sonata in which the cello and piano act as equal partners, neither being reduced to a simple accompaniment to the other. Previous cello and piano sonatas had featured one

of the two instruments in a ‘sidekick’ role. Either the piano played continuo in what was essentially a cello sonata, improvising harmonic side-chatter from a score consisting of no more than a figured bass, or else the cello played obbligato, reinforcing the bass line in what was really just a piano sonata with a bit more ‘oomph’ in the lower register.

The sonatas of Op. 5, with their fully written-out piano parts, are thus the founding works of the cello sonata genre such as we know it today. And what an impressive foundation they are. In the words of Steven Isserlis, these sonatas are “real concert pieces, large in scale, full of exciting effects that would have left the Berliners gasping”, while Joseph Kerman calls them “almost miniature concertos”.

The Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1 is comprised of only two movements: an exploratory Adagio leading to a grand- scale Allegro, followed by a playful rondo finale. The opening Adagio piques the listener’s curiosity with mysterious, strangely non-committal ruminations over small melodic phrases and gestures, occasionally interrupted by passionate outbursts that predict emotional volatility in what is to follow. And yet the Allegro, when it begins, is the soul of musical propriety, much in the style of Mozart – and in this regard it is useful to remember that Mozart wrote his ‘Prussian’ quartets for this same monarch, the amateur cellist King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Particularly Mozartean are the balanced phrase units of its opening theme, the cadential trills, and cadencing patterns repeated for emphasis at major articulation points in the form.

More Beethovenian, and more ‘gasp-worthy’ are the extreme range explored by the two instruments, the emotionally charged atmosphere (especially in the development), the striking contrasts of mood and unexpected changes of harmony, as well as the extraordinarily ‘thick’ writing for the piano.

The last movement is a gentle toe-tapper of a rondo with a Haydnesque feel to it, especially noticeable in the simple playfulness of its repeated-note principal theme. The contrasting episodes are particularly intriguing: one features a darkly merry, gypsy-like tune in the minor mode while another begins with a double- stop bass drone in the cello supporting eerie harmonic explorations in the piano. The cello is put through its paces in passages replete with multi-octave arpeggios, double stops and repeated leaps, but it is the piano that dominates in the end, with the massive sonority of its rolling arpeggios in both hands at the work’s end.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations in F on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op. 66

Compared with Beethoven’s ‘Handel’ variations, his variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute are much more sharply chiselled, more widely differentiated in character, like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the complaint of Papageno, who sings of how much he is in need of female company. But he’s not fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

After Mozart has masterfully captured in melody the uncomplicated outlook and endearing simplicity of this rural bird-catcher, Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty and one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone. The learned trappings of imitative counterpoint that interlard the stately set of ‘Handel’ variations have no place in this little musical comedy.

Like the ‘Handel’ set, the first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its division of the melody into nifty little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear – all in a comic texture in which the piano plays far below it in the bass, like a plodding basso buffo.

The work proceeds in this manner through the following variations, with a distinctly different figuration pattern or rhythmic outline defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale. To provide a modicum
of contrast to what has, so far, been a remarkably chipper succession of musical sentiments, these slow movements are both in the minor mode. The first, Variation 10, uses double-dotted rhythms to lend an air of grim fatalism to its pronouncements, very much in the style of the Commendatore’s address to Don Giovanni. The second offers the cello a chance to hold forth with a bass aria, accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano.

The time signature is changed to 3/4 in the last variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the tune with which it begins and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends sweetly and softly.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Horn Sonata in F Op. 17

Beethoven’s only horn sonata was written in short order for the celebrated horn-player Giovanni Punto (1746-1800), one of the leading exponents of the hand- stopping technique that expands the number of notes playable on the natural horn. It was performed for the first time at a concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 18 April 1800, with Beethoven at the keyboard, and later published in a version for either horn or cello.

The original scoring for horn means that when played by the cello the solo instrument will not be confined to melodic gestures idiomatic to the horn. No matter, Beethoven writes a fulsome and elaborate part for the piano, laying down a rich carpet of harmonic fill when his performing partner is holding forth in lyrical melodic fashion, and ensuring that the entire room is filled with sound when drama is needed in more intense passages.

The first movement begins with a proud, triadic horn call for the cello, answered by the most blithely innocent, naively optimistic response from the piano. You can tell, right from the start, that these two are going to get along. And get along they do in this first movement, which is remarkable for its conversational manner. By the time the second theme rolls around they are completing each other’s sentences, like an old married couple. The development section brings their collaboration to a high pitch of emotional intensity as the piano answers in the bass register the cello’s triadic horn calls while sending broken chord figures up to the Gods in the opposite direction.

The second movement carries none of the emotional weight of an extended lyrical slow movement,
being rather a palette-cleansing introduction to the concluding rondo, with the dotted rhythm of a slow march. The finale opens with the strange bedfellowing of an academic succession of staid half-notes covering large leaps but concluding with a coy scale pattern twinkling with mordents. The intervening episodes in this rondo allow the cello to shine in a lyrical solo role, and while some of this contrasting material is in the minor mode, there is never any doubt that buoyant good spirits will prevail in the end.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in A Op. 69

The moody Beethoven of struggle and revolt is nowhere to be found in his radiantly serene Sonata in
A major Op. 69. This is Beethoven in his happy place, composing effortlessly in the mainstream manner of high Classicism, constructing melody after melody from the same basic building blocks, and roaming in carefree leisure from section to formal section as if exploring the various rooms of an interesting museum or art gallery.

Like a well-mannered child at a birthday party, he doesn’t hog all of the cake for himself but creates a perfectly balanced equilibrium between the roles of pianist and cellist (which in the Op. 5 sonatas were, admittedly, a bit skewed toward the 88-keyed side of things). He even allows the cello to begin the work, with the piano only entering the conversation once its colleague has finished presenting the solidly constructed melody that will contribute phrases and motives to the rest of the movement.

While the work as a whole is remarkable for its motivic economy, the first movement is especially so. The essential features of the first theme contribute Lego pieces not only to the construction of the following transitional passage in the minor mode (with its similar opening leap of a 5th), but also to the calm, measured pace of the second theme, so similar to that of the first. And because an atmosphere of sweetness and light can be cloying after a while, in the development section he transforms this theme into an outpouring of minor-mode pathos in the Italian manner before unleashing a stream of four-string arpeggios in the cello against equally stirring tremolo figures in the piano. The recapitulation is a shortened version of the exposition, but is extended by a coda that pensively lingers over motivic memories of the movement’s major moments.

The second movement scherzo is an elegantly playful game of ‘Where’s the beat?’ with syncopations poking you in the shoulder with such wilful insistence that you could easily lose track of the rhythmic thread. Measured relief comes (twice!) in the more stable trio sections, introduced by double stops in the cello.

Beethoven is having far too much fun to indulge in an intensely operatic slow movement, with all the dramatic contrasts that would involve, so he contents himself with a scant few phrases of lyrical reflection before moving on to his finale. This last movement, in sonata- form, splits its attention between a bustling first theme and a more poised, ‘stop-to-smell-the-roses’ second theme, with a few chromatic twists and turns in the development section to add a hedge-maze piquancy to its harmonic unfolding.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

 

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