Here is an outstanding set of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas by two players of the younger age group, in excellent sound. Born in Germany in 1985, Leonard Elschenbroich was trained in Britain and his native country; he has been a BBC New Generation Artist. He and the Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk are a regular duo and have recorded the Rachmaninov and Shostakovich Sonatas (also for Onyx). They omit the sets of Variations from this release but include Beethoven’s own transcription of his Horn Sonata – as did Miklós Perényi and Dezső Ránki on one of my favourite cycles of the Sonatas, issued in 1979 by Hungaroton.
Beethoven seems to have been reluctant to admit that the cello of his day was capable of a sustained legato. The first three Sonatas and the Triple Concerto show signs of this doubt. The Opus 5 Sonatas of 1796 have Adagio sostenuto introductions but no slow movements ¬– and I doubt whether their original performer Jean-Louis Duport would have played the introductions as slowly as Elschenbroich and Grynyuk do. Nevertheless I am grateful for their slow tempos: they are capable of sustaining them and they make the most of some attractive music. The Allegro of Opus 5/1 features sparkling piano-playing: the cellist has a lovely tone, the instruments are well balanced and quieter passages are sensitively done. The Finale starts quite teasingly and again the artists work well together. The first episode is not as explosive as in some hands: they seem to see it more genially, which is fair enough. The slower passage before the coda is very expressive.
In Opus 5/2, they take the introduction very seriously, playing it with great depth of feeling, and they move quite slowly into the Allegro molto before working up to tempo. It is done so well that it works, and they achieve a good impetus, allowing for the necessary relaxations in certain places. The pianist sets a neat tempo for the Finale and the cellist is right with him: each episode finds them of one mind.
Next in chronological order comes the Horn Sonata, written in 1800 for the virtuoso Václav Stich, aka Giovanni Punto. The cello delivers some nice fanfares and the players take advantage of the cello’s ability to move faster than the horn, giving us an up-tempo Allegro moderato. I have no real objection, although I do prefer the more relaxed speed adopted by the two Hungarians. A very brief Poco Adagio takes us into the final movement, where the two pairs of players agree.
Everyone’s favourite, indeed one of Beethoven’s best, most approachable duo-Sonatas, is Opus 69. I suspect that Elschenbroich and Grynyuk have played it more often than the others and that this familiarity has led them into trying a soupçon too hard to be expressive. At any rate, Elschenbroich holds the third note of the brief introduction fractionally too long: it is better when the phrase is repeated, but there are other places in the opening Allegro where both performers allow the quest for expressivity to hold up the flow minutely. In general they play beautifully. The Scherzo is nicely handled, with excellent dynamic changes, and the two appearances of the Trio are well integrated: the quiet coda is well done. The first presentation of the opening theme in the brief Adagio cantabile could be simpler, but the Allegro vivace goes well, with a straightforwardness that hitherto has occasionally eluded them. None of my reservations is serious, but I do not think that this Opus 69 is going to be one of my top nominations – my all-time choice so far is Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and Ronald Turini in their outstanding Sony set including the three lots of Variations but not the Horn Sonata.
The Opus 102 Sonatas of 1815 have their gruff side and seem far from the easy expansiveness of the ‘Archduke’ Trio, composed four years earlier. These two musicians get the brusque style just right. Elschenbroich plays very inwardly in the Andante introduction to Opus 102/1, sensitively seconded by Grynyuk, and the opening of the Allegro vivace is powerfully dramatic from both players: the rugged intensity is suited to the music but there are also more lyrical moments. The brief Adagio is again very inward, as is the return of the Andante before the Allegro vivace: here the duo are in top form and they relish the stops and starts, with which Beethoven has fun. The piano writing is often very exciting in the faster sections and Grynyuk is not found wanting. The ending is very dramatic.
Opus 102/2 opens in question-and-answer style, something that came naturally to Beethoven: the Allegro con brio is very well handled by both men. They get the right side of the Adagio – here at last the composer vouchsafes us a proper slow movement – and the cellist warms his tone to just the proper amount for the slightly more flowing central section in the major key, marked dolce. The players also handle the return of the Adagio adroitly. The fugal Finale steals in: it is well done, with the “And with his stripes” Baroque tag, used by a number of Classical composers, cleverly subsumed into the general progress.
Although we have not lacked for cellists over the past century, there have been relatively few really outstanding sets – and one or two dire disappointments, such as the shotgun marriage of Piatigorsky and Solomon and the more hopeful pairing of Rostropovich and Richter, studio-bound and boring, with a buzz on the cello tone (their live filmed cycle from Edinburgh is better). Back in 78rpm days the catalogue was dominated by Opus 69: Casals was ill-matched with Schulhof but Feuermann and Hess were dazzling and there was a more sober alternative from Grümmer and Kempff. Casals completed his cycle with Horszowski, a little underpowered but sensitive – only in the early 1950s did the now-elderly Catalan cellist meet his true match in Rudolf Serkin.
In the LP era, the combination of Janigro with Zecchi was potent. After so-so attempts with Schnabel and Kempff, Fournier found his beau ideal in Gulda; and after a pretty serviceable cycle with Bogin, Starker was even better partnered by Sebők. Rose and Istomin should have been a good bet but the cellist insisted on having the pianist banished to the back of the studio in Opuses 69 and 102/2. No wonder Istomin balked at completing the cycle – in his self-serving memoirs, Rose complained! Jacqueline du Pré and Bishop (now Kovacevich) recorded the same two Sonatas superbly but did not do the rest – I imagine many listeners have enjoyed the complete du Pré cycle with Barenboim but I relish it only in fits and starts.
Besides the Hungaroton and Sony sets mentioned above, I have collected the discs by Navarra and Sancin, a tiny bit rough but very much to the musical point, with all three sets of Variations; a second cycle by Janigro (just the Sonatas), with Demus; and the very solid (in the best sense) set by Olefsky and Hautzig, with the Variations. For those who fancy gut cello strings and a fortepiano, I recommend Isserlis and Levin, who find room for the Variations and the Horn Sonata.