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: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

It was gratifying to see a substantial house for this generous programme. “The Baillie/Lisney Duo” is a partnership of real quality; and, interestingly, the piano is repositioned at a slight angle to the cellist to facilitate eye contact between the players, a reflection that these musicians are a true duo and that Beethoven’s ‘cello sonatas’ were all published listing the piano as the ‘first’ instrument, emphasising the importance of the piano part, so no apology for drawing attention to the fact that James Lisney is a natural ‘classical’ player with notably clean fingering and an under-pedalled sound – crisp and dry like a good Muscadet.

There is a real musical benefit to hearing these five sonatas at one sitting since the near-twenty-year span of their composition – from 1796 to 1815 – neatly encapsulates all three phases of Beethoven’s development – from the expansive Haydnesque early works via the mid-period A major to the aphoristic compression of the ‘late’ pair.

Alexander Baillie and James Lisney’s closeness suited well the Opus 5 Sonatas, which are discursive to a point – the first movement of the F major lasts longer than the whole of Opus 102/Number 1 – and in the wrong hands they can seem interminable. The Baillie/Lisney Duo found plenty of light and shade so that both works’ slightly garrulous qualities were minimised. These musicians also do those little unexpected harmonic swerves, which are so characteristic of early Beethoven, to particularly good effect and find just the right ‘pawky’ humour at significant moments (such as the ‘fake’ ending of the first movement of the G major). This was joyous, quirky playing entirely apt to these works.

If Opus 69 seemed less completely achieved I would suggest that the reason lay in a tendency to push the tempos in all four movements. The first is marked Allegro ma non tanto whereas here it was taken rather too headlong so that it over-heated – and Baillie’s otherwise-excellent intonation suffered at points. However, there were excellent things, too, particularly the scherzo, Beethoven in ‘Celtic’ mode, the spirit of the dance ever-present.

The duo hit stride once again with the pair of Opus 102 sonatas and caught the abrupt gruff unpredictability of much of the music, timing its sudden pauses and changes of direction to perfection, whilst both Adagios found exactly the right tone of unaffected emotion, the final slide into darkness of the sombre slow movement of the D major Sonata particularly eloquent. The concluding fugato – taken at a moderate tempo – was given with real grip and strength.

No apologies (once again) for mentioning therefore that James Lisney and his violin partner Paul Barritt will play all of Beethoven’s ‘Violin Sonatas’ over three Sundays from 27 May at Highgate’s excellent chamber music venue, The Red Hedgehog, starting at the notably convenient time of 4 p.m.

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