Many of us braved hurricane preparations, Halloween-related street closures, and other effluvia of life on Sunday to convene in the Distler Performance Hall, Granoff Music Center, of Tufts University for a concert of Beethoven. Pieter Wispelwey (cello) and Lois Shapiro (piano) teamed up to present all five Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello in one concert.
Wispelwey seems to enjoy marathon concerts. Three summers ago he played all six Bach solo cello suites in one program at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. This concert, all the Beethoven sonatas – some two hours of music (performed with a regular intermission and a shorter pause). Currently Wispelwey and Shapiro are touring, playing a variety of programs; this all-Beethoven program was heard at Simon’s Rock of Bard College earlier this month, while Friday night at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress one Beethoven sonata and one set of his variations were on the program, along with Ligeti, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. The marathon-concert approach is a different idea of recital programming; when performed by artists of such talent and calibre it can be an exciting opportunity for musical immersion. I do wonder though if it owes something to the phenomenon of recorded music – a live version of popping in a disc and listening to all the Beethoven sonatas. Is it a bad thing for recital programming to approach recording formats?
These sonatas span Beethoven’s career from 1796 to 1815. Lois Shapiro’s lengthy and informative program essay argues that this music “enacts its own becoming” (an idea congenial to German Romantic philosophy and it is no surprise to find Schiller quoted in her essay). By this she means, in part, that Beethoven took an established format of the continuo sonata, a genre explored in detail by many Baroque composers, and created a distinctive, virtuosic vision for cello and piano that is dramatic, deeply entwined, virtuosic for both instruments – almost a series of double concerti. Technical requirements never outstrip musical ideas: rhythmic variation, formal experimentation, harmonic innovation, all coalesce in these sonatas with the lyric capabilities of the cello. At the same time that these sonatas “serve as a microcosm of [Beethoven’s] entire œuvre,” as Shapiro writes, they are also the still unexhausted fons et origo of the modern cello sonata.
Barry Cooper, in the introduction to Jonathan Del Mar’s Bärenreiter critical edition of these sonatas, notes that the op. 102 sonatas, due to their musical complexity, were first printed with piano and cello in score, as well as a separate cello part: “This practice is of course normal today, but at the time it marked a radical new departure, and the sonatas were Beethoven’s first chamber works to appear in score.” Publishers, too, helped Beethoven’s music enact its own becoming. The op. 5 sonatas are dedicated to the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm II, an accomplished amateur cellist whose teachers included the French cellist Jean-Pierre Duport and his more famous younger brother, the virtuoso Jean-Louis Duport. Duport and Beethoven premièred these sonatas at the king’s court in Berlin. Upon this auspicious beginning much depends.
Wispelwey and Shapiro began the recital with the op. 5 sonatas, nos. 1 and 2 (in order). Next came the op. 102 sonatas, again nos. 1 and 2, dating from 1815. The third Beethoven cello sonata, op. 69 (1808), concluded the concert. Since this program was not structured around thematic connections across composers, was not subject to the customary logic of mixing, I was surprised that the compositions were not performed in chronological order. Arbitrary, true, but so is the decision to program only Beethoven sonatas (or, for that matter, most any other recital program ever assembled). A chronological presentation would have given us the chance to hear Beethoven develop over time as a composer, incorporating past lessons into later compositions. The watershed op. 69 work was obviously a difficult and crucial exercise for the composer, who was at the same time working on the Fifth Symphony; in both works “line and register become thematic elements,” as Shapiro writes, and so too does rhythm.
A grandiose Adagio launched us on a regal note into the two-movement sonata. From this opening, Wispelwey and Shapiro were in great form demonstrating mastery and ownership of this music. Pieter Wispelwey, performing all the works from memory, had fabulous bow control and effectively used every millimeter of hair to desired effect, and a variety of bow grips to suit the changing demands of the music. He also employed a judicious use of vibrato, which had been more restrained in the earlier sonatas on this program. Lois Shapiro, who is unostentatious in her tremendous accomplishments, brought out the virtuosic elements in the piano line without ever overwhelming the cello. She deployed a range of touches at the keyboard to articulate different styles and lines in the music. The decidedly challenging piano part flowed with apparent ease — by turns graceful and gravelly, languid and growling, dancing and pensive. Together both musicians matched phrases and dynamics in a real ensemble performance, a conversation among equals. Tempi seemed brisk, but fully respecting Beethoven’s markings and the music at hand; the sound carried cleanly through the space at all times.
I do have a few quibbles. As with any conversation, there are occasional hiccups: a couple entrances were not as tight as they might have been. Given the length of the program and the rhythmic challenges Beethoven’s music poses, this is hardly surprising. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, I note it here. Similarly, I found Wispelwey sounded tight, at times reedy, in the upper register and I missed the rich resonance of the lower; this may have been related to the dramatic weather, which affects string instruments dramatically. Finally, I find Wispelwey’s stage mannerisms — humming and grunting; elaborate bow lifts — to be a distraction from his remarkable talent and musicianship. Some find this part of the charm of a genius like Glenn Gould, and others do not; in a longer concert such as this, I found it harder to disregard and I am not sure what it adds to the music. Again, this does not lessen his talent; it is, for me, a hurdle to hearing him live in performance (and only some of my personal issues are resolved by looking away).
Quibbles aside, it was a well-attended, long afternoon of wonderful music played wonderfully.