BEETHOVEN: Complete works for violoncello and piano – [Tracklist follows] – Steven Isserlis, cello/ Robert Levin, fortepiano – Hyperion (2 discs):
BEETHOVEN: Complete works for violoncello and piano – [TrackList follows] – Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello/ Alexander Melinkov, piano – Harmonia mundi (2 discs):

BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 5, No. 1; Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2; Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69; Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1; Cello Sonata in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2; Variations on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO45; Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66; Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Dei Zauberflöte, WoO46; Horn Sonata in F Major, Op. 17 (arr. for cello and piano) – Steven Isserlis, cello / Robert Levin, fortepiano) – Hyperion CDA67981/2 (2 discs), 79:50, 79:08 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 69:07 (1/14/14) *****:

“BEETHOVEN: Complete works for violoncello and piano” = Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66; Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 5, No. 1; Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2; Variations on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO45; Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69; 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 – Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello / Alexander Melinkov, piano) – Harmonia mundi HMC 902183.84 (2 discs), 67:38, 71:02 (9/9/14) ****:

As Steven Isserlis mentions in his pleasantly chatty yet informative notes to his recording, Beethoven gave to cellists a rare bounty: sonatas from each of his three creative periods. This is not true of violinists, whose last sonata written for them was a product of the composer’s Middle Period (even if written at the pinnacle of that period, 1812, in the same timeframe that saw the completion of the Archduke Trio and the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies). It’s no accident that Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69—penned just four years earlier and in the virile, extrovert style that characterizes other chamber works of this period (the Archduke Trio and the Razumovsky Quartets come immediately to mind)—is the most popular with performers and audiences alike. The oddly designed Op. 5 Sonatas, with which Beethoven essentially created the genre, and the experimental Op. 102 Sonatas play second fiddle, so to speak, to Op. 69.

While I’m probably in a minority, I prefer the Op. 5 works to those of Op. 102. It seems to me that Beethoven’s attempt to push the envelope of Classical style bore much more satisfying fruit in his late piano sonatas and quartets than in these two late cello sonatas. There’s a certain scruffiness about the tiny (by Beethoven standards) Op. 102, No. 1. It seems to hark back to the pattern of the two earliest sonatas in commencing with an extended slow introductory movement followed by a scurrying Allegro vivace. But instead of immediately concluding with another fast movement, Op. 102, No. 1, segues into a brief slow movement before launching the bookend Allegro vivace with which it concludes. If the Op. 5 Sonatas seem unbalanced in construction, Op. 102, No. 1, seems just as unbalanced, but defiantly so. And again, I may be in a minority (despite my criticisms) in preferring it to Op. 102, No. 2. That darn fugal finale of No. 2 is the sticking point for me. Late in his career, Beethoven was studying the fugues of Bach and Handel, attempting to give this beloved Baroque musical form new, distinctly Classical trappings. At his most effective, Beethoven created movements of great power and momentum (the last movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Consecration of the House Overture, Grosse Fuge). In a less effective vein, he just comes off sounding pedantic, as in the finale of Op. 102, No. 2. Let me know if your reaction is different; I’m always willing to be persuaded to change my mind.

However, there’s such an infectious swagger to the finale of Op. 102, No. 1, that I can’t resist, which is pretty much how I feel about the romping Allegro finales of Op. 5, Nos. 1 and 2. In these musical juggernauts, the superb ensemble playing of Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin is especially breathtaking. The duo probably work hard to achieve the kind of balance of sound Beethoven had in mind, but it all seems so effortless, and so joyously executed, that work is the last thing you’ll think of as you listen. This is sheer, exuberant play by two consummate musicians. Isserlis wields his Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius (on loan from the Royal Academy of Music) with a slightly throaty (or is it fruity?) tone that meshes well with Levin’s powerhouse traversal of the keyboard. I know Robert Levin to be a master of the pianoforte; but here, he outdoes himself, bringing wonderful color and interpretive range to this copy of a Walter & Sohn fortepiano from around the time Beethoven penned his Appassionata and Waldstein Sonatas.

The sets of variations and especially that comparative rarity, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Horn Sonata for cello and piano, are richly rewarding appendices in this well-filled pair of discs from the always enterprising Hyperion label. The arrangement of the Horn Sonata, by the way, has such a different character—less assertive, more yielding—as to be almost a different composition and is therefore most welcome. As is this entire, indispensable set (excellently recorded, by the way, in that perfect recording venue, Henry Wood Hall in London).

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If for whatever reason you’re allergic to the fortepiano (and if you are, you haven’t heard playing the likes of Robert Levin’s), the Queryas/Melinkov duo offers excellent alternatives using a modern piano (plus cello of unstated age and provenance). Technically, Queryas/Melinkov give us the complete works for cello, though the arrangement of the Horn Sonata is a very nice makeweight and one feature tipping the balance toward Isserlis/Levin. Then again, the two sets don’t compete directly because of the choice of keyboard instruments, and if you want a version with modern piano, Queryas/Melinkov is an excellent choice. It compares very favorably indeed with my old standby recording from Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, now at budget price). In fact, Queryas/Melinkov provide a nice foil to Harrell/Ashkenazy, who emphasize the lyrical aspects of Beethoven’s writing in readings that are frankly somewhat Romantic.

Queryas and Melinkov use less rubato and a bit less dynamic contrast and shading. So their interpretations reflect current trends in Beethoven playing, emphasizing the more Classical aspects of Beethoven’s art. Their readings are every bit as dynamic as those of Isserlis and Levin. Indeed, while timings don’t tell the whole story, Queryas and Melinkov are consistently speedier than Isserlis/Levin in the sonatas.  In rare cases, these ultra-quick tempi make the playing seem clipped; this is unfortunately true for one my favorite movements, the Allegro vivace finale of Op. 69. Curiously, on the other hand, Queryas and Melinkov are consistently slower in the variations. I certainly like the elegant, patrician quality they bring to this genre Beethoven favored throughout his life.

So, to sum up, Jean-Guihen Queryas and Alexander Melinkov are dynamic and daring in the sonatas, a bit more laid back and ruminative in their approach to the variations. I find their interpretive choices sensible and just. If I rate these performances a bit lower on the scale than those of Isserlis and Levin, it comes down to the special brio that Levin brings to the keyboard part and the fact that Queryas’ tone, though rich and rounded, is a bit fatter, a tad less precise in intonation than Isserlis. Such matters are largely subjective, I suppose, but I prefer the tighter sound that Isserlis produces, feeling it better matches the Beethoven esthetic.

However, there are many beauties as well in the set from Queryas and Melinkov, and Harmonia mundi’s sound is a thing of beauty, too, reflecting a lush, lively acoustic (the tried-and-true Teldex Studio in Berlin) yet maintaining pinpoint detail and presence. If you’re looking for a modern-instruments performance of the Beethoven chamber works with cello, this set is a very reliable choice.

—Lee Passarella

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