Beethoven: Sonatas & Variations For Cello & Piano

By Jerry Dubins September/October 2006

Beethoven sells, but one might think from the recent onslaught of new recordings of the quartets, piano sonatas (see elsewhere in this issue), and cello sonatas that we are commemorating a jubilee of his birth, as we are of Mozart’s in 2006. Perhaps, since Beethoven died in 1827, we are gearing up for an anniversary of sorts in 2007. Whatever the incentive, Artek recorded these live performances, presented under sponsorship of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, in April 2005, at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Boston.

Michigan-born Bion Tsang comes with an impressive portfolio of competition prizes and artist recognition awards, especially for one as young as he appears in his Web-site photo at He also steps here into territory where many of cellodom’s heavyweights have staked a claim. Just among recent contenders are Miklós Perényi with András Schiff on ECM (which I reviewed positively in 28:3), Erling Blondal Bengtsson with Anker Blyme on Danacord, Pieter Wispelwey with Dejan Lazic on Channel Classics, and Brendel father and son, Alfred and Adrian on Philips. All include along with the sonatas the sets of variations Beethoven wrote for cello and piano, but Perényi and Schiff also include for good measure a horn sonata by Giovanni Punto that Beethoven himself transcribed.

The two sonatas that comprise op. 5—the F-Major and the G Minor—bear a dedication to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. Acknowledged as an accomplished amateur cellist, Wilhelm received Beethoven at his court in the summer of 1796, where the composer played the sonatas with one of the Duport brothers, Jeanne-Pierre or Jean-Louis. If the King later attempted to play the cello parts himself, the effort may have done him in, for barely four months later, on November 16, 1796, he died.

Though only in two movements—reminiscent of some of Mozart’s sonatas for piano and violin—the F-Major Sonata outstrips Mozart’s earlier duo works both in terms of scale and technical challenges. A lengthy Adagio introduction that vacillates between sorrowful sighs in the piano and songful lyricism in the cello leads to an Allegro that belies its F-Major high spirits in a stormy development section, turning the exuberant main theme of the exposition towards minor keys. The second movement, ostensibly a simple Rondo, likewise exhibits a minor-key episode midway through.

If the slow introduction to the F-Major Sonata is alternately sorrowful and songful, the Adagio introduction to the G-Minor Sonata is portentous, even a bit grim. It hovers ambiguously, as many of Beethoven’s introductions do, in a kind of harmonic no-man’s land, building tension and expectation as it seeks resolution. What is so novel about this Adagio is its extraordinary length. Lasting for nearly six minutes, it is almost as long as the main body of the Allegro molto to which it is attached. Such an odd imbalance poses the speculation that Beethoven may have regarded the Adagio as a movement unto itself, a conjecture supported by the fact that some recordings band it as a separate track. The Sonata is therefore either in two movements, like its F-major sibling, or in three, depending on how one chooses to hear it.

G Minor is not a key to which Beethoven turned often, and the ensuing Allegro molto, to which he appended più tosto presto (more rapidly, as a presto), homes in on the minor mode with a vengeance. It is driven and unrelenting, a fine, early, example of the composer’s well-known Sturm und Drang manner. It is also an excellent example of how Beethoven develops a large-scaled work from a fragmentary motive that is more gestural in nature than it is melodic. This, too, will have momentous implications in later works. Everything that is Beethoven is here on display in proto form.

A dozen years separate the two op. 5 sonatas from op. 69. The A-Major Sonata was written as a peace offering to pacify an indignant Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein whose feathers were ruffled when Beethoven promised to dedicate his Fourth Piano Concerto, op. 58, to him and then reneged. Astute enough to know who buttered his bread, Beethoven set out in 1807 to compensate Gleichenstein, another talented amateur cellist, with a cello sonata. Completed in 1808, the A-Major Sonata is contemporaneous with the Fifth Symphony as well as a number of the composer’s most popular and beloved works. This—Beethoven’s so-called “middle period”—was an extremely productive time in the composer’s life, giving rise to some of his greatest masterpieces—the Violin Concerto, the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” Piano Sonatas, and the “Pastoral” Symphony. It was also a time during which he was forced to confront the progressive deterioration of his hearing, and to contemplate the external world of silence that deafness would ultimately impose upon him.

The gulf that separates the A-Major Cello Sonata from the op. 5 set cannot be measured by years alone. Nor can the circumstances under which it was written—an act of contrition to placate an aggrieved patron—explain the order of magnitude leap in Beethoven’s musical thinking. The ethereal opening measures, the strange harmonic progressions, the open octave passages, and the heartbreak in the development section all speak to the composer’s broadening and deepening expression, and his full embrace of the Romantic ideal.

Written in 1815 for cellist Josef Linke, the two sonatas comprising op. 102 are works that must be lived with for a while in order to appreciate them fully. They are strange in many of the same ways that most of Beethoven’s later works are—formally irregular, disjointed, harmonically vague, amelodic, and marked by sudden, wrenching changes in key, tempo, and mood. They are also among the composer’s most complex and technically challenging works. The D-Major Sonata, in particular, with its enormously difficult third-movement fugue, was long held to be unplayable.

Tsang commands a solid technique and a full-throated vibrant tone that sings sweetly even when the going gets rough. These are remarkably poised performances that speak to long, careful, and loving preparation. “Best,” or even “better than,” are words I dare not use when comparing Tsang and Anton Nel to the aforementioned contenders, but I am comfortable in saying that these are highly satisfying readings on every count. To call Nel an outstanding accompanist seems a bit gratuitous considering that these works are as much sonatas for piano as they are for cello. Repeats are taken, the recorded sound is excellent, and the audience is heard only in applause at the end of each piece. Easily recommended.