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Monday, May 14, 2012

Concert Review: Beethoven for Conversation

Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin play the Cello Sonatas
by Paul Pelkonen
Beethoven at his fortepiano. Note the lack of pedals.

Within the vast catalogue of works written by Ludwig van Beethoven, the five Sonatas for Cello and Piano are relatively obscure: chamber pieces written for salon performances and various musicians and patrons the composer encountered in his career.

On Saturday night at the 92nd Street Y, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Robert Levin shone light on these lesser-known works. Contributing to the unique nature of these performances was Mr. Levin's choice to play fortepiano, an older style of keyboard instrumet with a shallower wooden frame and no pedals. The instrument, built by Paul McNulty, is modeled after an 1805 fortepiano, a spindly creation that looks more suited to a furniture museum than the concert stage.

The concert opened with a set of variations based on "Bei Mannern," the Act I duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. These were played with engaging warmth as the softer sounds of the fortepiano intersected perfectly with the cello's imitation of the human voice. The variations range from light and playful to slow and serious. Beethoven's interest in the humanist message of the text allowed him to alternate between the solemnity of a humanist message and the playful first interaction between Pamina and Papageno.

The first proper Sonata played was the Op. 5 No. 2, written for the French cellist Jean Pierre DuPort when Beethoven was visiting the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. This sonata takes the form of a three-movement dialogue between the instruments, with lyric cantabile lines from the wooden heart of the cello answered by steady, decorative chords and occasional flights of lyric fancy. 

It is odd to hear these simple, sometimes minimal utterances for two instruments and how they preface the big heroic themes to come: the hushed start of the First Symphony, the theme-and-variations ideas in the Eroica. Mr. Isserlis and Mr. Levin's dialogue expanded as the movements progressed, from intimate conversation in a salon to a glimpse of the cosmic visions to come. Mr. Levin made good use of the faster action on the fortepiano, spinning off tinkling lyric lines as he dueled with his concert partner.

The second half of the program presented both works from Beethoven's Op/ 102, the sonatas numbered 4 and 5. They were written for the Countess Maria Erdödy, a Croatian noblewoman who was both a patron of Beethoven's and a skilled pianist. These works were published in 1815, and stem from Beethoven's final creative phase, where deafness and illness were the chief obstacles to composition.

The Fourth Sonata finds Beethoven at his most intimate, with a long slow introduction that leads into a relaxed, genial fast movement. A secondary theme may or may not be the source of John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever." In any case, Mr. Isserlis and Mr. Levin played this with careful attention to detail, making the long pauses in between sections pregnant with meaning.

The bleakest of these sonatas is the Fifth, which finds Beethoven grappling full-on with his deafness. The mournful opening anticipates both Schubert and Shostakovich, with a lugubrious melody for the cello that speaks eloquently of despair. The work ends on a lighter note, with a complicated fugue for the two instruments that sounded as if it were being played by more than just two people. The concert ended with a brief, beautiful encore: "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" from Bach's Orgelbuchlein.

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