BEETHOVEN: Complete Sonatas and Variations for Pianoforte and Violoncello = Matt Haimovitz, cello / Christopher O’Reilly, fortepiano – PENTATONE (2 SACDs)

“BEETHOVEN: Complete Sonatas and Variations for Pianoforte and Violoncello” = Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 5, No. 1; 12 Variations on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO45; Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2; 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66; Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69; 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Dei Zauberflöte, WoO46; Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1; Cello Sonata in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2 – Matt Haimovitz, cello / Christopher O’Reilly, fortepiano – PENTATONE multichannel SACD PTC 5186 475, (2 discs), 71:58, 68:02 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Matt Haimovitz is almost as good a writer as he is a cellist, and his intelligent notes to this recording make for fine, informative reading. Early on, he describes the instruments involved. Christopher O’Reilly plays an especially clear-voiced 1823 Thomas Broadwood fortepiano, which, we are told, is the model following the one that Broadwood himself gifted to Beethoven in 1817. As for Haimovitz, he plays a Venetian Goffriller cello of 1710 “outfitted with ox-gut strings and an early 19th-century rosewood tailpiece and drawn by a Dominique Peccate bow of the same era.” Haimovitz then muses, somewhat surprisingly, “With this setup, the fact that the cello can easily overpower its partner changes everything. Suddenly the consideration is no longer ‘how can the cello cut through the multi-voiced powerhouse of a concert grand piano,’ but ‘how can it make room for the nuances of the 19th-century fortepiano?’” I say “somewhat surprisingly” because, having listened to these performances several times before reading his notes, I found the thought of any sort of imbalance far from my mind.

Instead, I was struck by the special sort of tension maintained here between parity and contrast. Of course Beethoven pioneered the cello-and-piano sonata and, being Beethoven, he was not only “unshackling the cello from its continuo origins” but making the piano a full partner in the enterprise. Cf. the title of this album: “Complete Sonatas and Variations for Pianoforte and Violoncello.” Beethoven wrote his first two sonatas for himself and the celebrated cello virtuoso Jean-Louis Duport; for me, the first movement of Sonata No. 2 epitomizes the equally shared responsibility Beethoven mapped out for himself and his partner. By turns, piano and cello explore the explosive drama of this G-minor juggernaut. Chris O’Reilly clearly relishes being a stand-in for the German master here; his performance has special fire and élan. And I love the upper range of the Broadwood—crisp and bright, without a hint of jingle or jangle. In the mostly smiling rondo finale, Haimovitz nimbly negotiates Beethoven’s hairpin turns from bounding runs and double stops to throaty song.

For me, the greatest of all is the Sonata No. 3, Op. 69, and I have very definite ideas about how this piece from Beethoven’s heroic Middle Period should go. For me, Haimovitz and O’Reilly are just a little too non tanto in the Allegro ma non tanto first movement. Their approach is a bit too even-tempered, even genial, for me. Having reviewed the sonata album from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin (Hyperion CDA67981/2) fairly recently, I still hear that duo’s highly charged approach in my mind’s ear and feel that Haimovitz and O’Reilly don’t quite stack up, at least in this movement. I’m quite a bit happier with their performance of the movements that follow: real Beethovenian swagger in the scherzo, and the finale is the whirling dervish of a thing that it should be. I’m even taken with Haimovitz’s plaintive statement of the second melody: a bit unusual but effective. In fact, this performance is more nuanced than some, with larger dynamic contrasts than many players allow themselves.

As Haimovitz says, Beethoven’s final two sonatas for cello “sound like modern music.” And he reminds us that the publisher to whom Beethoven first offered these works said thanks but no thanks! Haimovitz goes on, “There is almost a sense that Beethoven needs to break down the bounds of Op. 69, classically proportioned and balanced, to challenge the Platonic ideal of chamber music interplay. . . .” An astute observation and one that apparently pays interpretive dividends because these are among the finest performances I’ve heard of these somewhat intractable sonatas. Op. 102 No. 1 is especially fine (but then I much prefer it, as music, to No. 2).

As to the sets of variations, they are as always nimble and entertaining vehicles, here given spirited, sympathetic performances. Not my favorite Beethoven by a long shot, but when I want to hear them again, Haimovitz and O’Reilly are about as fine a pair of advocates as I know. Given that their playing is captured in beautifully true, beautifully balanced surround sound from PENTATONE, that’s all the more reason to return to this excellent pair of discs.

—Lee Passarella

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