BEETHOVEN Complete Works for Cello and Piano
This is the third instalment in François-Frédéric Guy’s traversal of Beethoven and the first to delve into the chamber music. He is well matched in intellect, musicianship and temperament by cellist Xavier Phillips as they journey from the ridiculous (the Variations on ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’, in which Guy dispatches the virtuoso piano part with complete aplomb, to delectable effect) to the sublime (the Op 102 Sonatas). The two sets of variations on themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute are a very different proposition from the ‘Conqu’ring Hero’ but just as persuasive, with the Op 66 set given a particularly sparkling reading.
Competition is of course thick on the ground, not least from Isserlis and Levin (playing a tremendously characterful McNulty fortepiano), which was an obvious choice for Record of the Month in February 2014. But Phillips and Guy deserve that accolade just as richly and their utterly different sound world is equally riveting.
From the same year as the ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Variations come the two Op 5 Sonatas with which Beethoven embraced the genre of sonata for piano and cello for the first time. In the opening Adagio sostenuto of Op 5 No 1, Phillips and Guy conjure up the sense of a genre being formed before your very ears. Compelling too is their reactivity, Guy never stealing the limelight from Phillips, though it would be easy to do so, particularly in the first two sonatas, in which the piano’s role is more overtly brilliant. The First Sonata’s Rondo is a highlight, with a real one-in-a-bar swing, the minor touches given due prominence. By comparison, both Müller-Schott/Hewitt and Qin/Tiu sound too well behaved; Isserlis and Levin are also a degree steadier but they offset this with some fantastically imaginative keyboard colours. But when it comes to judging the final moments, with the gentle ‘dissolve’ into a meditative mood that is then boisterously cast aside, Guy and Phillips are unassailable. The finale of Op 5 No 2 also has a wonderful elasticity, combining mischievousness with ardent tenderness as Beethoven demands. We’re made acutely aware of the different air breathed in each sonata. Phillips imbues the opening of Op 69 with a confiding quality that is just right: Müller-Schott is a tad more tentative, though both have a songful beauty of tone in their upper registers. In the same work’sScherzo, incidentally, Guy chooses (like Hewitt) not to repeat the tied notes where Beethoven marks a change of fingering, a feature which both Levin and Tiu observe.
One of the finest aspects of this new set is a sense of absolute rightness about each of the tempi chosen. The slow movement of Op 69, for instance, possesses a natural songfulness alongside which Müller-Schott/Hewitt and Qin/Tiu sound somewhat effortful; this contrasts splendidly with an ebulliently quick finale, neither player ever sounding puffed. The C major Sonata, Op 102 No 1, is just as impressive: it unfolds with a sense of total inevitability, its frequently gnarly world view convincingly conveyed, while the brief Adagio has a prayerful intensity.
And if you want to sample the seamless responsiveness of this partnership, just listen to the opening of Op 102 No 2, with its quicksilver changes of mood, from gruff good humour to elegant yearning and then back again to a kind of tart playfulness. The development, in which Beethoven conducts outlandish experiments on the briefest of motifs, is again judged to a nicety – Phillips’s deep sforzato accents slicing through the texture without becoming aggressive.
There follows one of Beethoven’s great late slow movements. Phillips and Guy shape its arching, aching lines with great intensity. Isserlis and Levin are a tad faster and the cellist’s use of vibrato only as an expressive effect is very striking. The test point with this Adagio is the espressivo melody introduced by piano and then joined by cello. Too slow and it sags like perished elastic, but not in the hands of Phillips and Guy (disc 2, tr 7, 0'56"). But then turn to du Pré and Barenboim and you find something more miraculous still: at a recklessly spacious tempo they turn it into a profoundly moving prayer. The close of the movement, a Beethovenian question mark, is answered by a fugal finale which in this new version has wondrous airiness and energy without trenchancy. It’s a recording that brings this sublime music into your living room in the most natural manner possible, and I can’t wait for Vol 4 of the series. Terrific!