Review: Beethoven Cello and Piano Cycle 1, Isserlis/Levin, Snape Proms, August 26

In terms of sheer numbers and perhaps prestige, Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano may not quite rank with the piano sonatas or string quartets but they still contain some extraordinarily fine music. In the first of two concerts devoted to all the music written by Beethoven for this combination, Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin gave a remarkable recital in which musical sensitivity was enhanced by displays of brilliant virtuosity and refined delicacy.

Beethoven’s mastery of the variation form ranged from the monumental Diabelli set to smaller, but no less effective, works such as the variations on ‘See, the conquering hero comes’ which opened the programme. The cello writing is breezy and confident, as befits the tune and both players accurately captured the optimistic tone, as well as giving the darker sections due weight. The variations on Mozart’s ‘Ein Madchen oder Weibchen’ from The Magic Flute were equally engaging and effective.

Robert Levin played a fortepiano, a copy of an original from 1805 and its lighter tone enabled the cello to be heard without difficulty at all times as well as giving the performance an extra degree of authenticity – this was the type of piano that the composer knew and composed for in the earlier part of his career. The F major sonata op 5 no1 emerged as a substantial composition with strongly-characterised themes and requiring considerable dexterity from both performers in the exposed passage-work.

The second half opened with an arrangement for cello and sanctioned by the composer of his sonata for horn op 17. It is an effective enough work in its alternative arrangement, particularly in such capable hands. The concert concluded with the glorious middle period A major sonata, Beethoven setting the work in motion with a short but memorable phrase, immediately answered by the piano and then with roles reversed. It is one of his sunniest and most fluent works and Isserlis played with fervour and lyricism as required. Levin’s familiarity and skill with the fortepiano enabled him to bring out the increased subtlety and richness of the composer’s writing without overpowering Isserlis and together they fashioned a memorable performance of this masterpiece.

Gareth Jones

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