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

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

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 November, 2010
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The shortest (number-wise) among his generic series, Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello provide the most succinct overview of his composing – each opus relating to those ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods such as fairly, if not a little inflexibly define his creativity. This recital duly offered a chance to hear these five sonatas in straight succession: at around one and three-quarter hours, they amount to a generous though far from excessive evening’s worth of music; while the formal and expressive variety between each sonata makes for a constant and thought-provoking development over the cycle as a whole. Moreover, in Alexander Baillie and James Lisney, they also enjoyed the advocacy of a born chamber musician as well as one of the leading British pianists of his generation – thus ensuring that the music-making was of a consistently responsive and assured level throughout.

The two cello sonatas that were written during 1796 between them offer an intriguing compendium of Baroque and Classical procedures, while their commissioning by and dedication to King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia – whose ability as a cellist was reflected in the respective part of Mozart’s final three string quartets – was an added incentive to ‘free up’ the cello line from a previously dominant keyboard part. Such was evident in the F major’s thoughtful Adagio introduction, discreetly setting out those salient motifs to be elaborated intensively in the Allegro that follows. The outcome was a muscular sonata movement finding appropriate contrast with the ensuing rondo, in which the spirited interplay between Baillie and Lisney was a constant delight. Easy to underestimate next to the early piano trios and piano sonatas, it yet ranks among the most pleasurable of Beethoven’s early works.

While pursuing a not dissimilar formal trajectory, the G minor is a bigger and more powerful sonata in every respect. These performers brought a due plangent expression to the lengthy Adagio introduction – of a weight that the older composer would have made into a movement in its own right – then emphasised the sustained rhetoric of the ‘main’ Allegro, the taking of the second-half repeat was vindicated by the varied emotional emphasis drawn from it. After which the finale was hardly a relaxation – throwing up a repartee that veered between the resolute and ironic with a teasing unpredictability.

By the time he completed the A major Cello Sonata in 1808, Beethoven was in the midst of a decade where the heroic and the romantic (to invoke so loaded a term advisedly!) aspects of his music were given free reign. This is evident in the expansive nature of the themes in the opening Allegro, in which Baillie and Lisney rightly adopted a cumulative approach such as highlighted its slow-burning intensity on the way to a coda that (not for the first time) further develops salient ideas as much as it brings them full-circle. The scherzo is among the most compressed and tensile of those featuring two trios – which latter was winningly genial – and there was no lack of eloquence in an Adagio that is reduced here to an introduction to the finale; itself as magisterial as any Beethoven wrote during this period, and in which the performers pointed up the coda’s initial rumination before an affirmative final surge.

Come 1815, and his two final cello sonata, Beethoven was undergoing a musical (and most likely spiritual) crisis as led to the formal innovations and expansiveness of his final creative decade. If the works reflect this directly, it is in their formal obliqueness and an expressive detachment that can border on the aloof. The C major is the most concentrated of these sonatas – its first movement contrasting a circumspect Andante with an Allegro as taut as it is inscrutable; the overall process then being intensified with a limpid Adagio that, for its part, gives rise to an Allegro of demonstrably greater decisiveness yet equally devoid of rhetoric. As it was in this performance – with Baillie and Lisney underlining the clarity as well as the terseness of part-writing in music such as poses no questions and seeks no answers other than in those of its intrinsic processes as they unfold in time.

If the D major seems more readily communicative, this is probably because its content looks forward more directly to the piano sonatas and string quartets that followed. Thus the Allegro has a granite-like consistency of texture and tempo that were powerfully in evidence here, while the central Adagio enriches its pathos with a new fervency – and not least in the hymn-like central section that returns transcendent at the end. The finale’s fugal writing then diffuses accumulated emotion across writing whose intricacy does not inhibit a laconic reference to the work’s opening prior to the brusque close.

An illuminating evening, then, of music all too easy to overlook in the context of Beethoven’s output as a whole but which offers abundant rewards when rendered with such insight and dedication. It’s good to know that Baillie and Lisney have already recorded their interpretations.

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