Completists rejoice! All Beethoven, now available

By Beth Jackson

[The following review was written by a student enrolled in Music 104. It was selected for publication by the students of that class. -Ed.]

Musical connoisseurs – cellist Pieter Wispelwey of the Netherlands, and pianist Dejan Lazic of Hungary – served an impressive and comprehensive three-course meal of the early, middle, and late stages of Beethoven’s life. The audience gathered in the intimate setting of Mandel Hall on November 1 eagerly devoured, for the most part, the rich and expressive performance of the Complete Sonatas for cello and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The first two sonatas, No. 1 in F Major and No. 2 in G Minor from Beethoven’s early life, were extremely structured, Baroque pieces. These two sonatas were particularly dry, and having spent the majority of the evening prior studying for a midterm, I had a hard time staying awake. Although Sonata No. 2 was a competition between the cello and piano, the musicians’ immaculate coordination of staccato and pizzicato fused the two melodies into a cohesive whole. I was invigorated by the contagious liveliness of Wispelwey, who literally vaulted off the stage at intermission, demonstrating a remarkable amount of energy after having performed for two hours nonstop.

The articulation and passion Wispelwey and Lazic streamed into Sonata No. 5 in D major was enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. I snagged a closer seat for the second half of the performance, expecting Beethoven’s more innovative sonatas to really capture my attention. I was not disappointed; Sonata No. 4 did not subscribe to conventional composition and stretched the limits of sonata form. Wispelwey and Lazic seemed to feed off each other’s energy, easily maintaining the fast-paced tempo and nonchalantly executing the interchanges between minor and major key. In Sonata No. 4, the cellist’s foreboding long strokes reminded me of the “om” used in meditation and were countered by the pianist’s intricate arpeggios. Sonata No. 5 was a melee of experimentation riddled with emotions that seemed to extend into the bodies and facial expressions of the musicians themselves.

A web of musical patterns, dynamics, and con molto sentimento d’affetto (with much sentiments of affection), the last two Sonatas No. 5 and No. 3 really illustrated the musicians’ deep relationship with the sonatas. Unanticipated notes, abrupt key changes, last minute modulations, and unresolved cadences reminded me of modern music. As if to reassure me, the Sonata No. 5 slipped into the more structured form of a Bach work; interestingly enough, the program explained that Beethoven was studying Bach at the time he wrote this particular sonata. One part of the second movement in No. 5 that caught my ear was a moving and carefully arranged section. The cello would lead with soft slow notes in descending and ascending scales while the piano accompanied it with not quite staccato but distinct chords. Suddenly, as the cello trailed off, the instruments played a game of musical chairs and the piano came to the forefront with scales while the cello maintained a constant baseline.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Scherzo of Sonata No. 3 in which the faultless coordination of the performers was intentionally skewed. How hard it must be to play out of sync after striving so hard to play in unison? While Wispelwey and Lazic displayed professional mannerisms and a high quality performance in the first half of the performance, the first two sonatas reminded me of a soup and salad, merely primer for the main meal. The second half of the concert, no longer predictable or reminiscent of the style of former composers, was the heart of the show that opened up dozens of passageways for emotional communication and personal interpretation of Beethoven’s more involved works.

Following a rare (so I am told by a regular U of C concertgoer) standing ovation in Mandel Hall, Wispelwey treated us to an encore of the first movement of a Bach’s first cello suite. To play a piece that is practically the cornerstone of the cello repertoire as the encore was an unexpected yet highly delectable acoustic dessert.