During Beethoven’s early (and really only) 1796 virtuoso tour after he had moved to Vienna, the admirer and patron Prince Lichnowsky was anxious to have the composer stay on in Berlin for while (the last stop on the tour) in order to procure an audience with the King, a very skilled cellist. A few years earlier such an audience for Mozart resulted in some string quartets with prominent cello parts, and Haydn’s visit in 1787 had done the same thing. Beethoven, however, never the one to be conventional, decided to create two new cello sonatas for the sensational court cellist Jean-Louis Duport, who premiered them in 1797.
These are really the first works for the instrument in such substantial garb, and Beethoven makes use of his considerable facility to show off its capabilities. We must remember that the composer initially titled these “Sonatas for piano and cello”, and consequently made the piano part one equal to the difficulties found in most of the piano sonatas. They are energetic, passionate, and full of the “sturm und drang” of the age, with nary a slow movement between them.
But in 1808, when the 38-year old composer was in the midst of his “Napoleonic” period, he returned to the instrument, fashioning a work in A-major that stands with the finest examples of the genre ever created. This nearly half-hour composition has many wonderful moments, unforgettable melodies, and a lovely Adagio cantabile that displays some of the more expressive aspects of the cello (though it is still not a bona fide slow movement, still to come later). And of course the piano writing was done in a way to take into consideration the registry issues that come about when the piano intrudes into the cello’s more normal range, something the pianos of the age would have had far more problems with than the modern grand.
Muller-Schott has a superbly eloquent and deliciously burnished tone, as nicely done as any I have ever heard. While his interpretation may not have the no-holds-barred sweep that Du Pre brings to this music with Barenboim, he does have a restrained and wonderfully balanced instrument that sings as well as Du Pre and with better tonal properties. Angela Hewitt proves the perfect partner in this music with a sensitive and leading-when-necessary role that makes for a grand coupling. These might be the premiere Beethoven Cello Sonatas recordings when they are completed–this one is that good, as is the carefully captured, beautifully resonant sound in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Church.
— Steven Ritter