IN: Reviews

Wispelwey & Shapiro in Beethoven Marathon


Lois Shapiro (file photo)

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.

Peter Wispelwey (file photo)

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.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The performance of the five sonatas at Simon’s Rock occurred over a year ago, in October 2011. The performance under review represents a different tour by Maestro Wispelwey. They performed the sonatas in the same order at that time, and I found it effective from a listening point of view: Sonata no. 3 is the most concise, lyrical, and straightforward of all the sonatas, and as such offered an effective finale, something the last movement of Sonata no. 5 does less well, being more abstract and cerebral. A concert does not need to be a history lesson; it is easy enough to compare the composer’s early, middle, and late styles even when presented out of order.

    Comment by Larry Wallach — November 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm

  2. As far as I know, Wispelwey has always performed Bach’s six cello suites on a single program. I heard him do so in Boston, in his twenties, and again in Boston, in his thirties. Others, of course, do so as well (Laurence Lesser played all six in a program at NEC last year, for example). As for chronological order, CD releases often ignore this as well, since the varying lengths of pieces (whether Beethoven sonatas or Bach suites) require a juggling of the compositional order when presented in a two-disc set.

    I’m surprised to learn that there are “occasional hiccups in any conversation.” I have never encountered this. I also believe that quibbles are unbecoming in a Prince. I sat front row, center, at Sunday’s recital and was wholly unaware of any grunting, though that is possibly accounted for by the fact that I wear hearing aids. On the other hand, those aids pick up the slightest page-rustling, candy-unwrapping and heavy breathing around me, so I must have heard the grunts as part of the harmonic structure!

    “Wonderful music, played wonderfully” is a just conclusion to Mr. Prince’s careful review.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 1, 2012 at 8:51 pm

  3. >> easy enough to compare the composer’s early, middle, and late styles even when presented out of order.

    For sure, and in this case (as so often possible in Beethoven) you get to closely examine the crucial hinge right after being exposed to the before and the after.

    I highly recommend that serious Beethoven chamber students sometime listen to opp 132, 130 w/ GF, and 131, in that compositional order, all at once. Quite the extended (and also compact) journey.

    Comment by david moran — November 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm

  4. First of all, thanks to the M.I. for posting this concert so we could be there to hear the marvelous performances of these great works. Maestro W.always displays emotion,facial and oral, none of which detracts from his or his partner’s artistry. We were overwhelmed by this concert.

    Separate afterthought: After listening to the downloads of the NEC-Kahane concert (2/24: Mozart PC 22 …) agree more with the critics’ comments; we first thought the concerto wonderful; but he was more right than we were.


    Comment by morty schnee — November 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

  5. I always enjoy reading Mr. Cashman Kerr Prince’s excellent reviews for this journal, including the most recent, but I was disappointed to see that he dubbed as “quibbles” some major problems with Mr. Wispelwey’s performance (e.g., a sound that was “tight, at times reedy in the upper register and [lacking] the rich resonance of the lower;” distracting “stage mannerisms — humming and grunting; elaborate bow lifts”). Jeffrey Gantz expresses some similar reservations in his review of the concert in the Boston Globe on October 26, describing Wispelwey’s “dry, puckering tone engaging in a battle with his instrument.”

    Hmmm…this doesn’t sound like a concert for which I would have liked to have bought a ticket. However, what is most troubling is that the reviewers seemed not only to apologize for some serious problems, but they went further to blame the weather, the length of the program, the difficulty of the music, or even their own ears.

    This does sound, however, like a lot of reviews from the early days of the period instrument movement, when technical incompetence was dressed up as supposed historical accuracy. I thought those days were over, but maybe not, especially if we read James Oestreich’s review in the New York Times (Oct. 26 of a recording of the Brahms Serenade in D, op.11 by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque. Oestreich tells us that “the valveless horns are heard to struggle, and you could argue on the other hand that Barry Tuckwell and his London Symphony horn mates (i.e., on Oestreich’s favorite recording of this work) make it all sound almost too easy on modern instruments.”

    Too easy!? Please, gentle listeners and reviewers, trust your ears and musical common sense. The goals and standards of musical performance have never changed, whether they are for a work by Dufay or Dutilleux, or Bach or Beethoven: play beautiful music beautifully, and make it look and sound elegant and easy.

    Comment by Mark Kroll and Carol Lieberman — November 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm

  6. I’m put in mind of a comment that Gunther Schuller recently made to me. He said that the natural horn is much easier to play than a modern instrument, ” [in the appropriate literature] It’s impossible to play a wrong note on the natural horn since one only gets the notes in the harmonic series.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 5, 2012 at 8:56 am

  7. Thanks very much for this invaluable information (and from an impeccable source). It puts all those out-of-tune cracks and splats that have passed for “historically-informed” horn playing in even more vivid perspective.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — November 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm

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