This afternoon the faithful returned to the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall as Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin finished their survey of Beethoven’s music for cello and fortepiano. With another set of Magic Flute variations and three sonatas, this was a weighty concert, belied by the running time of just under two hours. As was last week’s first part, it was an impressive and moving affair.
Starting with Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” WoO 46 (1801) we returned to witness Beethoven respond to one of his admired influences. The music began with a delicacy of touch and tone, then became a varied exploration of color and character, played with lucidity and deftness. A rustic duet between Pamina and Papageno becomes the basis for a rich musical world of texture and shifting rhythms. Here the base tune is not always so obvious, making the resultant composition more Beethoven than Mozart, but it was joyfully performed and polished with the same care lavished on the sonatas.
Following this we stepped back to 1796 and the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2. This work plays with silence, turning rests and pauses into pregnant, meaningful gestures. This becomes more obvious with the current instruments: to a modern ear, we heard a more limited span of dynamics. Yet within the range of possibilities using gut strings on a Stradivarius cello and a fortepiano (a 1998 model by Paul McNulty), Isserlis and Levin charted a course ripe with tones and colors, and made fine gradations of dynamics. Isserlis performed a judicious and thoughtful use of varied vibrato technique, and also made brilliant use of incremental shifts which added to the fun of the subtly filigreed music. Fast passagework did not speak with the same clarity as on a higher-tension modern string cello, but the gesture remained obvious.
In the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815), late Beethoven came to the fore, and Isserlis responded with a fuller upper register of the cello, maintaining the expansive ease of the musical line and a keen sense of the sonata as a whole. This Adagio presented as a lullaby and the Allegro vivace with its rapid figures and change of tempo resembled a fun game of cat and mouse which we were all invited to join.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815) rounded out the survey. Here the Adagio was nuanced and sensitive. The Attacca led into the concluding Allegro – Allegro fugato; only here did Beethoven’s music surpass the technical capabilities of the instruments he had at his disposition. Which is to say that as he lost his hearing, he continued to imagine newer possibilities, some of which were not realized during his lifetime. The conclusion of this sonata seems a case in point. Even as the music looks forward, it also looks back and this fugato recalls Beethoven’s investigations of Bach’s fugues, and his own Grosse Fuge.
Over two Sundays a number of key points became clear. We heard Beethoven’s mark on the literature for cello and keyboard grow and develop across his œuvre, particularly as it shifted through his periods of compositional output—although this is perhaps clearer in other genres such as his piano sonatas or string quartets. Then we observe the increasing range of possibilities for the instruments, singly and together through an expansion of their inherited technique. Finally, and most crucially, we experienced the skillful artistry of Levin and Isserlis who presented this extended program with grace and keen insight and captivating musicality.
Recalled for an encore, Isserlis announced, “There is only one composer who could follow that.” So we were treated to a hauntingly lyrical rendition of J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ ” BWV 639 from the Orgelbüchlein. The cellist took the right hand of the organ line at pitch as Levin played the pedal part in his left hand and the left organ manual line in his right. Thus we received a final dollop of suasive and breathtaking musicality.