Programme Notes for PAW Online Recital on 24th April
Maggie Cole – Piano
Sebastian Comberti – Cello
Sonatas in F major (opus 17) and A major (opus 69) by Beethoven
In 1796, Beethoven’s very first two sonatas for piano and cello had been greeted with surprise and delight. These two works were written during a two month stay in Berlin and were performed there by Beethoven with the great cellist Jean-Pierre Duport, who was teacher to the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II.
These sonatas were the first real duos for the two instruments; the cellist is given more of the important musical material and approaches an equal footing with the pianist. Neither Haydn nor Mozart had written any cello sonatas, though both composers (especially Mozart) had given the cellist some interesting and prominent material in their string quartets. Haydn had written two cello concertos but no sonatas; the cello sonatas by Boccherini could better be described as works for solo cello with keyboard accompaniment, rather than equal parts.
Perhaps the only real precedent to Beethoven’s cello sonatas was J.S. Bach’s set of three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba, in which there is a true and equal partnership between the two instruments.
In Vienna, Beethoven had the good fortune to have at least three excellent cellists at his disposal, Antonín Kraft (for whom Haydn had written his second cello concerto), Antonín’s son Nikolaus and Josef Linke. There was also an amateur cellist, Ignaz Von Gleichenstein, who became a close friend of Beethoven and to whom the latter dedicated his A major sonata, the second piece in our programme.
Beethoven – Sonata in F major, Opus 17, for piano and cello – Vienna 1800
This work was first written (very quickly and almost overnight!) for the virtuoso horn player Giovanni Punto. It was given its first performance in the Burgtheater in Vienna on April 18th, 1800. This arrangement for cello and piano was made by Beethoven himself. There were also arrangements for violin and piano, flute and piano, as well as for string quintet. Such arrangements were very common at the time and ensured that composers as well as publishers could optimise income from a single work.
Allegro moderato The arresting, triadic ‘horn call’ at the opening is given by the cello alone, followed by an innocent, cheerful response from the piano. The two players hold a very equal conversation, often completing each other’s sentences (as one critic said, ‘like an old and long-married couple’!) The development section becomes highly emotional, with arpeggio figures in the piano shooting upwards (the Mannheim Rocket again!) in contrary motion to the cello’s ‘horn calls’.
Poco Adagio This is a brief little slow march in F minor, ending abruptly with a cadenza-like swirl in the piano, bringing us to the finale.
Rondo: Allegro moderato This is a beautifully uplifting movement with its opening of large leaps and sparkling mordents. It is spirited and good-humoured though with some contrasting material in minor keys. The cello is allowed to shine lyrically, sometimes high above the piano part. A very joyous movement indeed.
Beethoven – Sonata in A major, Opus 69, for piano and cello – Vienna 1807/1808
The dedicatee of this work – the amateur cellist Ignaz von Gleichenstein – was a state counsellor working in the War Department in Vienna. One of his duties involved an intelligence mission to assess Napoleon’s troop movements during a second outbreak of war between France and Austria. He was described by one of Beethoven’s friends as ‘a man of the greatest probity, the kindest of men’. It was Gleichenstein who negotiated the financial contract agreed in Vienna between Beethoven’s chief sponsors, the Archduke Rudolphe and the Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky, an agreement designed to persuade Beethoven to remain in Vienna and not to accept a lucrative offer from the King of Westphalia. It worked!
The sonata in A major is radiant and seemingly effortlessly happy, despite the fact that by this time, 1807, Beethoven had lost most of his hearing.
Allegro ma non tanto In this first movement, the cello – unusually – begins alone, a gentle, calm and musing theme with an improvisatory quality, followed by the piano. This theme provides phrases and motifs which are ‘played with’ in the whole of the rest of the movement which is an impressive example of motivic economy. The very first two notes, a fifth apart, (think of the first four syllables of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star!) are used to build the following transitional passage (in a minor key), which also begins with a leap of a fifth. The calm measured pace of the second theme links it to that of the first. In the development there are turbulent passages in minor keys and four stringed arpeggio figures in the cello. The movement ends with a thoughtful, nostalgic coda which again is full of memories of the motifs introduced at the beginning.
Scherzo – Allegro molto This is a playful movement full of rhythmic and chromatic uncertainty. But remember that in Italian, ‘uno scherzo’ is a joke. The central ‘trio’ section is rather more stable and is introduced by double stops in the cello.
Adagio cantabile; Allegro vivace The third movement is prefaced by a short slow section of great lyricism. The first theme of the ensuing finale (in sonata form) is fizzingly lively, whereas the second theme attempts to ‘stop the train’ and allows us time to contemplate. There are some labyrinthine chromatic twists and turns in the development section and the athletic cello writing is as virtuosic as that of the piano. Ignaz must have been a very virtuosic amateur!
Our cellist Sebastian Comberti has asked me to note that in the cello part of this sonata there are two or three short motifs marked ‘ad libitum’. Most musicians take this to mean ‘play these notes freely, at any speed or with any kind of expression you like’. It seems more likely – and certainly more in the spirit of the musical customs of the time – that Beethoven simply meant the player to improvise a tiny cadenza-like passage, and that the actual exact notes that he wrote were merely a suggestion, to be ‘played with’ by the performer, as a kind of improvisation, or even not played at all. Certainly that is what Beethoven (and many other pianists of the time) would have done at some of the cadences and pauses in the piano part, and Beethoven simply wanted to encourage his cellist to emulate this.