Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin began a two-installment survey of all the Beethoven music for cello and fortepiano Sunday at the Gardner Museum in an exciting reminder of the role the composer played in the evolution of both instruments and their repertoire.
Thanks to the interventions of Baron van Swieten, Beethoven knew Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus; thanks to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Berlin we have 12 Variations on “See the Conquering Hero Comes”(1796) testifying to the affinity between the composers, and the persuasive power of a monarchic patron who happened to be a cellist. In this reading, the base tune remained audible throughout, which is not always the case when these are performed. I appreciated the lengths Isserlis and Levin took to foreground the fertile and potent variations Beethoven wrought from this material without obscuring the tune. Opening with this selection was also an astute programming decision, as it allowed us to acclimate to the sounds of the fortepiano, with its characteristic blend of harpsichord and (modern) piano sounds. This is a more subtle art and these variations eased us all into the range of this sound-world.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 5 No. 1 in F Major (1796) with its familiar themes and condensed structure made manifest the primacy of the musical gesture more than in other performances, with the phrase taking precedence over individual notes. Dynamics and color variations were carefully placed, and mellow middle of the cello’s tessitura was emphasized.
The Mozart variations, more properly 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute, Op. 66 (also from 1796) rounded out the first half. Here the music is decidedly more Beethoven than Mozart, even as it attests to the cordial sympathies between the two. Papageno’s wry commentary on his lonesome state here becomes a richer and more varied world as the Singspiel gives way to fully realized drama. The lovely minor key variation opened up a world of emotional depth we don’t always associate with The Magic Flute. Isserlis and Levin reveled in the rich potentiality this music offered and the result was a delightful gem which polished up more nicely than one might have anticipated.
Following intermission we moved on to sonatas and advanced in time. The Sonata in F Major for Piano and Horn, Op. 17 (1800) is an intriguing work, and one with a seemingly complex history; there is also a cello version in the composer’s hand. While the original showcased Giovanni Punto’s hand-stopping technique and the expanded range of the natural horn, the cello version exploits that instruments technique. The sonata begins with a staggered opening. This is not an example of call and response structure, but of call and call. There is a competitive edge here as each instrument vies for the floor, yet decorously awaits its turn to do so. The low notes in the cello parallel a horn call, and the flourishes (so very different on horn than on cello) are miniature essays in calling attention to one’s musical line. From tenderness to march to a concluding rondo that coruscates over melodic leaps, this is an intriguing station of the sonata’s development.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 (1808) is difficult to avoid hearing through the lens of Brahms’s first cello sonata, a seeming response to this Beethoven. Isserlis and Levin gave a strong reading distinct from the moody pontifications so often associated with late 19th-century Romanticism. Variation, upheaval, and strong contrast exist here, certainly, but it is all suffused with a classical sensibility. This piece argues for the victory of communion, as cello and fortepiano come together.
Hearing now-familiar music performed on the less-often-heard fortepiano gave new insights into Beethoven’s innovation. The music and artistry are less thunderous and diabolical; here it was not so much the fulminations of a fundamentalist preacher (which requires a modern piano for the soundscape to be complete), but the insight and restraint, the cultured polish and reserved demeanor, of some high-church service. The acumen shone forth in meticulously crafted details; throughout, the players wore their learning lightly. What graceful exploration from these high-caliber artists.