Of the many larger-than-life composers whose music fills the great concert halls around the world, it may be Beethoven who looms largest. For years, the cellist Steven Isserlis professed not to like the composer, and it was only after years of performing Beethoven’s cello sonatas that he came to really love them. In 2004, Isserlis was given the opportunity to perform the full set for the first time with champion keyboardist Robert Levin. The two proved a perfect match and have since presented the complete works for cello and fortepiano countless times.
Performing all of Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano back-to-back is a unique experience from performing the works separately. Together, they are a journey through Beethoven’s life. The first two are grand demonstrations of the piano with exciting flourishes and effects (Isserlis calls them “sonatas for piano with cello”). The third, composed as Beethoven began to contend with total deafness, is remarkably joyful for the middle period of the composer’s life. The last two from Beethoven’s “late” period, are concentrated, shorter than the previous three, each note with a perfectly argued purpose. They carry a wisdom and consideration that only comes later in life.
In addition to the sonatas, Beethoven wrote three sets of variations for cello and piano, the first based on the theme of ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, and the latter two on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. All three demonstrate Beethoven’s affinity for his predecessors, his technical skill, and his penchant for fun, also evidenced by his own arrangement of his sonata for horn.
Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin perform the first installment Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello on Thursday, February 21 at the Logan Center for the Arts.
Beethoven: 12 Variations on “See the Conquering Hero Comes”
Beethoven: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1, Op. 5 No. 1 in F Major (1796)
Beethoven: 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute, Op. 66
Beethoven: Sonata in F Major for Piano and Horn, Op. 17 (1800)
Beethoven: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 (1808)