SEARCHING FOR BEETHOVEN STYLE

Angela Hewitt, piano; Daniel Muller-Schott, cello; The Complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas and Vartiations - Chan Centre and Vancouver Playhouse, November 27 and 29, 2009

Daniel Muller-Schott, cello

Daniel Muller-Schott, cello

Angela Hewitt, piano

Angela Hewitt, piano

It was an inspired idea of the Vancouver Recital Society to engage Ottawa-born Angela Hewitt, one of the world’s most distinguished exponents of Bach on the piano, along with Daniel Muller-Schott, one of the most acclaimed young cellists before us, in this Beethoven collaboration.  The cello sonatas are a touchstone of the cello repertoire and span Beethoven’s full composing career.  Even from the opening two sonatas, Op. 5, the structural weight and integration, the rhythmic angularity and wit, combined with simple, yet powerful, melodic lines make these works seem much beyond Haydn and Mozart. 

Right from the opening of the first concert, one noted the sheer tonal beauty created by both artists.  The clarity of Angela Hewitt’s articulation on her Fazioli piano, the evenness of her runs, and her ability to luminously suspend soft, right-hand passages was striking.  At the same time, Muller-Schott’s silky, smooth and eloquent cello line was an illuminating complement.  While both artists showed a great sensitivity to detail, I had an initial problem: The performances did not have a distinctive Beethoven sound or feel.  At first glance, the approach seemed too light, but in a way too sophisticated, for Beethoven.  Thus, the piano writing was often delivered with a clipped staccato (almost Baroque) articulation, while, at the same time, the cellist tended to inflate simple phrases by adding an expressive 19th C. veneer to them.

While the performing tradition dating from Casals, Rostropovich, Fournier, and others has tended to integrate the softer, lyrical aspects of the works and their more dynamic features within an overall Beethoven ‘pulse’, the current performances also tended to operate with two distinct speeds and types of expression.  The faster dramatic writing was indeed somewhat headlong, full of  brilliance on the piano, but with a slightly undernourished cello, while the slower lyrical passages were seemingly separated out, given a hushed, overwrought expressiveness (especially in the cello)  that might take us to the world of Schumann and Brahms.  

The last two sonatas fared best under this approach, since they have some degree of fragmentation built into their structure from the master’s hand.   These were given good, clean performances; perhaps somewhat analytical but likeable nonetheless.  The problems were more pronounced in the first three sonatas.  Op. 69 is for good reason the most popular of the set; beautifully structured, lyrical, and exciting.  Here the first movement was too deliberative, making many isolated points without producing the overall ardour and momentum that are essential.  The second movement, at a very slow tempo, seemed to buckle from the Brahmsian emotional weight applied.  The finale once again had lots of fine detail and rhythmic push but still remained pretty earthbound.   Much beautiful playing -- but it did not add up.

The early Op. 5, No. 2 sonata raised even greater stylistic questions.  With the sparkling brilliance of Angela Hewitt’s piano playing, I was almost convinced that I was listening to Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio.  But Beethoven is made of tougher stuff than Mendelssohn; much of the raw angularity of his writing was reduced to the comfortable and the pretty.  Some rhythmic figures were inflected on the piano in such a ‘perky’ style that it was difficult to believe that the composer actually wrote them.  Here I felt that there was very little link to the core of Beethoven’s emotional world.    The Variations also struck me as too comfortable; the artists  failed to pull out Beethoven’s brusque wit enough.

These concerts certainly made me think a great deal of how these works might be performed.    However, I am convinced that simply combining an elegant athleticism with carefully-chosen doses of romantic sentiment cannot be the full answer, no matter how beautifully this is done.  I do have the highest regard for both artists. Since neither has become a Beethoven specialist until fairly recently (these works, plus the initial installments of an ongoing Beethoven Sonata cycle by Angela Hewitt have just been released on Hyperion), perhaps these performances are still a work in progress. The Cello Sonatas themselves are another matter: they are beautifully finished works that any serious listener must learn and cherish.

 © Geoffrey Newman 2009