Feature Review: Beethoven Day – Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin play all of Beethoven’s music for cello and piano in a single day…


12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO45

7 Variations on Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, WoO46

Sonata for Horn and Piano in F, Op.17 [transcribed for cello]

12 Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op.66

Sonata for Piano and Cello in F, Op.5/1

Sonata for Piano and Cello in G minor, Op.5/2

Sonata for Piano and Cello in A, Op.69

Sonata for Piano and Cello in C, Op.102/1

Sonata for Piano and Cello in D, Op.102/2

Steven Isserlis (cello) & Robert Levin (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Sunday 28 January 2007

Beethoven’s works for cello and piano lend themselves perfectly to precisely this sort of day, devised by Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin. As Isserlis told the audience in a characteristically amiable aside, the fortepiano was chosen to emphasise Beethoven’s daring and pioneering spirit in this music, and though this unaccredited instrument had to be tuned between works the point was borne out handsomely. Isserlis played the 1730 Stradivarius of Emanuel Feuermann, coaxing from it a truly astonishing range of dynamics and timbre.

The day was arranged around four logical groupings of works, so that the Coffee Concert (11.30 in the morning) covered the Variations and the afternoon and early-evening concerts divided into a natural early-middle-late triptych, with substantial intervals between. Lest the glut of Variations become too much in the morning, the pair included Beethoven’s Horn Sonata in an arrangement believed by Carl Czerny to be Beethoven’s own.

Despite the Opus 66 assigned to the ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Variations, all Beethoven’s works for piano and cello in this form are early ones. Immediately apparent was the importance of Levin’s fortepiano, taking the lead in the ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ Variations with florid sequential runs of admirable precision and dexterity, while Isserlis maintained a semi-continuo role that broke nonetheless into fuller tone for the minor-key commentaries.

The range of colour extracted from the fortepiano by Levin was extraordinary, with wonderful dynamic control even through the ‘Bei Männern’ Variations, which required a brief pause for instrument readjustment.

A welcome break in the Variation idiom, the Horn Sonata transcribed relatively well for cello, even though it threw up occasional challenges of register. Nonetheless, Isserlis and Levin maintained a good sense of balance, so that when both parts were in the lower register there was still definition. Levin continued to take the lead, with busy first-movement figures. The brief Adagio was intense, thanks chiefly to the lack of sustaining that made each statement profoundly self-contained. By contrast the finale crackled at a quick tempo, thrown off with panache.

Twelve more Variations, this time on ‘Ein Mädchen ober Weibchen’, found the fortepiano in a little distress but again Levin coped admirably in support of Isserlis’s enviable cantabile. Isserlis had jokily maintained that as a period instrument the piano was “meant to set the teeth on edge” but it did nothing of the sort in the minor-key variant, where the two musicians tastefully played with the tempo.

As an encore the pair offered more Variations in the form of an early set written for mandolin, WoO4, whose march-like theme once again called for right-hand precision from Levin before a charming pianissimo finish.

And so to the main course, beginning with the Opus 5 sonatas, fully realized as daring early Beethoven in these virtuoso performances. To heighten the dramatic impact of both works Isserlis and Levin pushed Beethoven’s dynamic markings and tempos to the extremities, moving quickly and effortlessly between barely audible pianissimo and strongly projected fortissimo.

The F major Sonata makes considerable demands on the pianist to the point of a concerto-esque approach, but both players kept a secure balance. The serenity of the Adagio sostenuto gave a clear picture of the larger structure Beethoven was working towards, while the thrust of the ensuing Allegro contained some fiery dialogue, with the quasi-cadenza toward the end especially exciting. Finally the third movement charmed whenever returning to its rondo theme, Isserlis’s sweeping bow strokes at the end securing an expansive finish.

With little pause Isserlis and Levin moved into the second of these substantial early works, once again conveying a vitality that made the notes leap off the page in the stormy Allegro, which found its preparatory Adagio enjoying beautifully compact playing from Levin. Again the finale drew parallels to a concerto – this time anticipating the Fourth Piano Concerto in both key and turn of phrase – and the energetic dialogue between the two swept forward to an emphatic conclusion.

These sonatas performed in order offer a compact snapshot of Beethoven’s stylistic progression better than any of his other bodies of work, and with Opus 69 we examined the middle period. The piano’s changing role was clear here as Isserlis assumed greater importance, with an obvious tightening of structure and economy of expression.

Once again Levin’s accompaniment was beautifully shaped, and as the cello touched on higher registers Isserlis was equal to the demands. The dramatic scherzo flew past, stabbing at the main theme and hardly finding respite in the trio, where both players obsessed with Beethoven’s repeated note pattern. The brief Adagio brought wonderful attention to detail in Isserlis’s careful approach to vibrato, while the finale was not hampered by the higher register of the piano which was losing its touch again, the two pressing forward to an emphatic finish.

Early evening brought the beginnings of late Beethoven and the Opus 102 sonatas, whose unusual formal constructions bring music of concentration and expression. Performing both in close proximity emphasized the contrast with the comparatively garrulous Opuses 5 (not a criticism!), and with Isserlis and Levin still in fine form these were truly memorable performances. The first sonata surged forward in its forthright scherzo, having been given plenty of room by a reverent Andante. This sonata is made up of two essentially fast movements, both given slow introductions. The second of these found moments of pure stillness, perfectly poised for the turn to home, where Isserlis produced dramatic sweeps of the bow.

The second sonata began with a vigorous call to arms, a bright first movement contrasting markedly with a deeply felt Adagio. In this second movement Isserlis and Levin made their most profound music of all, the cellist’s bow barely moving at the shared pianissimo stillness, which brought yet more remarkable tone from the pianist and total stillness in the packed hall.

Out of this emptiness the fugue strode at first warily, then purposefully forward, thrillingly gaining momentum to a triumphant conclusion. The pair, looking almost as fresh as when they had begun, offered the slow movement from J.S. Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata (BWV1027) as an encore, its creator billed by Isserlis as “the only composer other than Beethoven that we could have chosen”. This capped a hugely uplifting day of music-making.

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