Beethoven Cello Sonatas

Author: 
Joan Chissell

Beethoven Cello Sonatas

  • Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 3
  • Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 5

Towards the end of 1971 the harsher realities of illness dashed all Jacqueline du Pre's hopes of a studio recording of Beethoven's complete works for cello and piano with her husband, Daniel Barenboim. By great good fortune, however, the BBC were present with microphones when they played the cycle during the 1970 Edinburgh Festival. And after long enriching the LP catalogue, this recording has now been transferred to CD, with all five sonatas and the three sets of variations fitted (by the omission of certain repeats in the first three sonatas as well as of all applause) on to only two discs lasting for an exceptionally generous total of 142 minutes. If doing less than complete justice to Du Pre's vibrant tone, the sound-quality is acceptable enough. But rarely (so it seems) can Edinburgh weather have been worse. Persistent coughing from the audience must have proved as grievous a cross for these two deeply committed young artists to bear as it remains for prospective CD purchasers.
At first I thought balance over-favoured the pianist, who emerges very much the leader in the early F major Sonata, and even in parts of its immediate G minor successor. But as the maturing Beethoven himself gradually unites the two instruments as equal partners, so all problems of this kind are overcome. After such searching intensity in the introductory Adagio of the latter work, how the two players enjoy the gaiety and sparkle of its concluding G major Rondo. In the lyrical A major Sonata, their point-making is never allowed to disrupt the music's longer flow. In the last two late works, nothing haunts the memory more than their withdrawn, self-communing slow movements, especially the devoutly suppliant Adagio (taken extremely slowly) of the D major Sonata (and, incidentally, how subtly they prepare for its other-worldliness in the coda of the preceding Allegro con brio). I also greatly enjoyed their temperament, as well as their relish of the composer's craftsmanship, in the darting exchanges of both finales.
The Variations are pure delight, with the boldest contrasts of dynamics and Sone-colour to enhance characterization. Slower, minor key numbers are sung with a speaking espressivo. And the spontaneity and sparkle of so many of the others is just what the booklet's happy, laughing photograph of Du Pre and Barenboim in action would lead you to expect.
Before her partnership with Barenboim, Du Pre had no stauncher collaborator than Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. She was only 20 when recording the third and fifth of the sonatas with him in 1965. Studio produced, the sound is more full and forward than that of the Edinburgh discs, allowing anyone never fortunate enough to have heard Du Pre in the flesh a truer idea of the glowing generosity of her tone. Her playing here could perhaps be described as more youthfully openhearted. She basks in the relaxed, sunny lyricism of the A major Sonata's first movement, stressing the ma non tanto qualifying its allegro so that every detail can be savoured to the full. In the Adagio of the D major work she and Bishop-Kovacevich favour a flowing tempo (timing is 10'49'' as against the 11'16'' of the Edinburgh performance) in their more overtly romantic, less spiritually withdrawn, approach.'

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