IN: Reviews

Beethoven and His Cellist Friends


Cherry Kim (file photo)

Cellist Cherry Kim “& Friends” presented a fascinating recital of sonatas and cello duos, with pianist Ai-Ying Chiu and cellist Scott Thomas Lesser as partners at the Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington last Sunday. On the face of it, the three cello sonatas by Beethoven representing his early, middle, and late periods might seem an entirely conventional choice of program, however great the works involved, but Ms. Kim enriched it in an unusual way by preceding each Beethoven sonata with a work for two cellos by one of Beethoven’s “cellist friends”—all of whom were both composers and virtuosi on the instrument. In a sense, they taught Beethoven about the cello, what it was capable of both in expression and in virtuosity at different stages of his life.

Cherry Kim, who recently completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Boston University, came to the United States with her family from her native Korea before reaching school age. She grew up in Texas. She began cello studies there and pursued them after high school in major conservatories: the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (performance diploma), the New England Conservatory (bachelor’s degree), the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University (master’s degree), Longy (graduate diploma), and Boston University (doctorate). In the process, she has worked with a who’s who of distinguished cellists. Her principal teachers at the institutions mentioned were Bryan Epperson, Laurence Lesser, Norman Fischer, Terry King, and Michael Reynolds.  She was a Tanglewood Fellow in 2009, and has also studied Baroque cello with Phoebe Carrai at Longy and Sarah Freiburg Ellison at BU.

Although she has taken part in many chamber music and orchestral performances in the area, this recital represented a sort of post-graduate “coming-out,” with an interesting programming idea and its presentation. Rather than providing notes in the program, she offered brief oral introductions to each work, relating the cellist friends to Beethoven’s career and making useful comments about each of the Beethoven sonatas.

The first of the Beethoven friends to be presented was Jean-Pierre Duport, whom Beethoven heard in Berlin when he traveled there in the company of Prince Lichnowsky in 1796—the very year in which he composed his G-minor Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2. 

Duport’s Sonata No. 1 in D major for two cellos still substantially reflects Baroque stylistic elements, especially in the fact that the second cello (ably played by Scott Thomas Lesser) has essentially a continuo part, while the first cello dominates thematically. Ms Kim projected this part superbly, especially in the expressively songful Adagio.

For the first Beethoven sonata—the one in G minor, Opus 5, No. 2, Ms Kim was joined by Ai-Ying Chiu, who made a superb sonata partner, well matched in mutual responsiveness of dynamics, articulation, and mood. The work has just two movements, though the first begins with a lengthy slow introduction, rich in sharply dotted rhythms suggesting anguished heartbeats  swelling to passionate climax then poised, pianissimo, before rolling away into a ¾ Allegro molto in which cello and piano occasionally toss melodic fragments back and forth, but for much of it the cello sings broadly passionate lines while the piano pushes it to further intensity with driving triplets. Having built to a stormy climax, Beethoven asks the performers to close with wide sweeps from soft to loud dynamics, sometimes over the course of long phrases, sometimes moving back and forth every few bars. The ensuing Rondo turns to the major for a bright and increasing virtuosic expression making considerable demands—fully met—on the part of both performers.

Owing to the overall length of the program (a full two hours’ playing time, plus a fifteen-minute intermission) the remaining two cello duos were not presented complete, but representative movements showed them to be more romantic in character than the Duport sonata. Bernhard Heinrich Romberg knew the young Beethoven when he was still in Bonn just approaching twenty.  Beethoven admired his playing and offered to write a concerto for him, though Romberg declined with the explanation that he played only his own music for solo appearances (possibly a polite way of turning away the young man whose music he did not quite understand).  The two movements of his Duo Opus 9, No. 3, from about 1806, were more romantic in sonority and were also more typical of chamber duos than the Duport in that the two players exchanged roles frequently, neither one serving simply as a bass line.

Beethoven’s Third Cello Sonata, the one in A major, is probably the most famous to audiences, possibly because it shows Beethoven in his middle period, when he composed many of his most popular works in rapid succession. Here Ms Kim and Ms Chiu elegantly shaped the contrasting phrases of the opening (different phrases for cello then piano, then the two phrases given to the alternate performer) in their most singing form at first (Beethoven specifies dolce), suddenly driven and tense in the minor with assertive sforzandi, visiting a different expressive world. The attention paid to these dynamic and expressive requirements kept the performance vivid and exciting. The Scherzo’s playful rhythms, with one or the other instrument beginning phrases syncopated on the upbeat while the other firmly marked the downbeat made for an effective opposition to the smooth Trio with its dolce double-stops in the cello and quietly grumbling bass in the piano. The slow introduction to the finale, though it is only eighteen measures long, gave Ms. Kim the opportunity for poignant lyricism accompanied by similar piano line before an expressive pause signals the Allegro vivace finale with the most tuneful singing by the cello, while the piano more often than not provided the rather percussive background to put the melody into the foreground.

Anton Kraft was the cellist with whom Beethoven was most closely familiar and with whom he worked most directly. Kraft was until his death in 1820 the cellist of the Schuppanzigh quartet, for which Beethoven wrote most of his string quartets, and was also the cellist Beethoven had in mind for the Triple Concerto. The performance the Allegro risolutoModerato movement from  his Cello Duo Opus 5, though not exactly Beethovenian in feeling, suggested that he fit into the world of the early nineteenth century. The performance by Ms Kim and Mr Lesser called for the greatest virtuosity of technique of any of the cello duo compositions presented in the concert.

The final work on the program was the first sonata from Beethoven’s last publication of duo compositions, Opus 102. It already starts to anticipate the unusual shaping of the later string quartets with an unpredictability in the number and layout of movements. Instead of the traditional three or four movement, Opus 102, No. 1, has just two, each in two parts, yet neither is self-sufficient. The first begins with a 6/8 Andante in C major that turns into a somewhat militaristic Allegro vivace in A minor—the key in which the movement ends. The second movement opens with an Adagio, moving to an Andante, which in turn moves to the main Allegro vivace. The slower movements approach the home key of C (which has not been solidly established since Andante of the first movement), finally exploding forth into the joyous and virtuosic finale. The performers here maintained the flow and the shape from these bifurcated movements, to projecting the spirit of each one and the beginning to the conclusion over its full span.

Cherry Kim has the fingers, the mind, and the heart to play the cello literature with warmth, affection, and energy. Though not especially relevant to this particular program, it is worth noting that I heard with amazement her performance of Victor Herbert’s big Lisztian Cello Concerto No. 2 a year or so ago (with piano accompaniment, in a lecture-oriented presentation) showing the scope and, if necessary, the bigness of her sound and expressive gestures. The Beethoven sonatas make different demands on the whole, but playing in a single recital the three sonatas heard here and adding the three works by cello virtuoso-composers of the same period also calls for a full armamentarium of technique and of stamina. These were fully met in Lexington on Sunday. Her musical partners also blended and balanced very well in the conceptions of these pieces. In particular, I would be happy to hear Ai-Ying Chiu and Cherry Kim as duo partners at any time. They match and balance in their musical expression and give every indication of fully reading each other’s mind.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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