Beethoven: The Sonatas for Pianoforte and Violoncello – The Baillie/Lisney Duo

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The Sonatas for Pianoforte and Violoncello:
Sonata in F, Op.5/1
Sonata in G, Op.5/2
Sonata in A, Op.69
Sonata in C, Op.102/1
Sonata in D, Op.102/2
12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, WoO45
12 Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op.66
7 Variations on Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, WoO46

The Baillie/Lisney Duo
[Alexander Baillie (cello) & James Lisney (piano)]

Sonatas recorded live on 9 November 2002 in Hochschule für Musik, Bremen; Variations recorded on 8 February 2007 in Mendelssohn-Saal of the Leipzig Gewandhaus

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: November 2007
WOODCD807/8 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 21 minutes

This is a re-release on Woodhouse Editions (“an imprint of Regent Records”) of Alexander Baillie and James Lisney’s Beethoven Cello Sonata cycle, as previously issued on Genuin, coupled with newly recorded Variation sets to make up the composer’s complete original output for cello and piano. The sonatas were recorded in a single concert in 2002.

Captured live the duo are sparky, energetic and alive to the music’s possibilities – all qualities lending themselves to interpretations of the Opus 5 sonatas, closely recorded but sensitively balanced by the players.

At the time of composition the cello was still finding its feet as a solo instrument within a chamber context, and Baillie is well aware of his role as ‘accompanist’ in the G minor Sonata, where Lisney’s bravura in the closing movement goes unopposed. Cellists often impose themselves too much here, and it’s good to have the sparkling right-hand passagework brought forward. Baillie is a hugely energetic performer when taking a more dominant melodic role, and development sections such as the first movement of the F major Sonata are stormy as a consequence. The two musicians clearly enjoy Beethoven’s harmonic daring, which Lisney brings fresh from the manuscript, along with sensitively chosen fluctuations in tempo. Dotted notes are jagged from Baillie in the first movement, but the more legato responses are tender and keenly felt.

By complete contrast the Opus 102 Sonatas allow time to stand still in their slow sections, and the closeness of the recording again helps in the players’ communication of the extreme intimacy of these two pieces. The slow movement of the D major Sonata is so hushed you barely breathe as a listener. The faster music harnesses a good deal of energy; the culminating fugue of the D major Sonata setting off with purpose.

Appropriately the A major Sonata unites the elements of performance described above, as it does where Beethoven’s compositional processes are concerned. This is passionately played music, and the dialogue between Baillie and Lisney is borne of experience in performing together. Baillie does push forward rather aggressively in the first movement’s development, though this is a tendency he tends to reign in, thus increasing the tension.

None of the five sonatas for piano and cello follows a conventional structure of sonata movements, and though for a while Opus 69 looks set to adhere to ‘convention’ the duo’s sudden clipping short of the slow ‘movement’ (less than two minutes!) is a jolt, but in entirely the right way.

For live performances the sonatas feature remarkably good intonation, ensemble and tone quality..

The Variations are more obviously studio-bound but succeed in capturing the verve and occasional playfulness Beethoven achieves, particularly in the “Judas Maccabaeus” commentaries. Again Lisney finds himself drawn to the front, and when expanding on the theme uses tasteful rubato. The two sets of Mozart Variations are enjoyable, too, played with a lightness of bow on the string, with a spring to Lisney’s playing and variety of colour to suit each Variation.

A most satisfying set, then – a Beethoven Cello Sonata cycle among the most rewarding on disc, impressive in its energetic transformation of the notes from the page and infectious in the obvious enjoyment shown by both musicians.

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