Superior in Every Way

By J. Scott Morrison April 23, 2006

Up till I heard this two-CD set of the complete works of Beethoven for cello and piano my favorite set had been that of the Emerson Quartet's David Finckel and his wife pianist Wu Han. But I'm completely captivated by this new release by a cellist I'd never heard of before, Bion Tsang. He is a young Chinese-American (born in Michigan in 1968) who made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 11 under Zubin Mehta. At a very young age he became a professor of cello at the University of Texas while continuing his concert career. It is amazing to me, frankly, that I'd not heard of him before. Perhaps that's because I'm not a cellist who is plugged into news of rising stars. Be that as it may, I find here the playing of a real master, with technique to spare (and Lord knows there's plenty of virtuosic demand in this Beethoven sonatas especially, oddly enough, the earliest two, the Op. 5 sonatas which were written for the reigning cello virtuoso of Beethoven's day, Jean-Louis Duport) as well as mature musicianship. He has the ability to subtly emphasize the important musical content while maintaining forward motion so that there is a sense of 'this is wonderful, I wonder what's next?'. This is true as well in the slow movements, such as the slow introduction to the Op. 5, No. 2.

My favorite of these sonatas is the Op. 69 in A Major. It has some of Beethoven's most compelling musical argument coupled with meltingly beautiful themes. Tsang makes the most of this and actually outsings Finckel or even Yo-Yo Ma or Mstislav Rostropovich, good as they are. Obviously, his performances face stiff competition -- every cellist worth his salt has recorded them: e.g., Casals, Rose, Starker, du Pre and Tortelier. His accompanist -- and that's a misnomer, actually, since the piano parts for these works are of equal importance to those for the cellist -- is the too-little-known Anton Nel, Tsang's University of Texas colleague. I raved about a solo album by Nel (Mozart, Sibelius, Granados, Schubert, Debussy) also on the Artek label just a few months ago. He, too, faces strong competition (Richter with Rostropovich, for instance) and acquits himself with highest honor. His playing is sensitive to the rubati of the cellist and his phrasing as well as dynamic and rhythmic subtlety are a wonder to hear. Add to this that these are live performances, recorded at Jordan Hall, Boston in 2005 and there is the additional frisson that comes from that.

Also included are the three sets of variations Beethoven wrote for cello and piano -- one based on a theme from Handel's 'Judas Maccabaeus', and two arias from 'The Magic Flute' ('Bei Maennern' and 'Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen') -- and they, too, are given excellent performances.

I do not hesitate at all to recommend this issue strongly.