performed by Rostropovich and Richter
(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)
The second cello sonata of Beethoven has the same provenance as its sibling in the opus five. Both works were written in 1796 in Berlin, when the composer met King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm II, and premiered by one of the king’s cellists with the composer at the keyboard.
As discussed yesterday, there was really no precedent for a work like this, where the cello was at least on equal footing with the piano, if not a true soloist with piano accompaniment.
This work, too is in two movements, with the first much longer than the second. It, too has a playing time of about 27 minutes, with the movements below:
- Adagio sostenuto e espressivo – Allegro molto più tosto presto (ends in major).
- Rondo. Allegro (in G major)
Matthew Rye at Hyperion says that the introduction to the adagio is essentially “an expressive and often dramatic fantasia.” It focuses much on musical content, development, while the second gives us plenty of virtuosity.
That fantasia could perhaps also be thought of as a prelude of sorts before the movement proper begins. The mood is somber up to the second theme, where we suddenly have a major-key passage that brightens things up a bit. We could obviously talk, as we often do, about the composer’s structure and how he develops and handles his material, but I fee at this point like it’s magical enough to listen to this journey that takes place without having to break it down. In these two works, Beethoven is blazing new trails, and with each bar that passes, he is setting a precedent.
Listen for the differences in G minor and the contrasting major key, for the purpose that the long ‘fantasia’ introduction serves and how the music progresses in this twenty-minute movement! That’s a massive single movement, but if we break it down and think of the intro as an actual prelude or separate movement, it’s not as drastic. What’s so magical is that even as a 20-minute movement, if you listen to let the music do its thing, it takes you away and it doesn’t feel so weighty. It’s a well-crafted story the composer tells.
For a second movement, we again have a rondo, which Rye says has “lively rhythmic patterning and much rapid figuration… culminating in a hectic coda.” A large portion of the first movement of this work is in the minor mode, but we got glimpses of sunshine. Here, though, in contrast with that, we have such a bright, playful finale. It again feels diminutive set against the large first movement, but it is busy and exciting enough to hold its own. We’re also very clearly in G major, with very little hint of the somber nature of the first movement.
I’m not getting into the mechanics of the writing, the interaction of the instruments, all that, but in either of these recordings with Rostropovich and Richter, they play the finale at a near-breakneck pace, and it’s certainly exciting that way. Some people remark that it’s a little too fast, but the result is at least that it underlines the virtuosity of the writing, while a slower approach may accent the more delicate aspects of the music.
In any case, this is music that speaks to the soul, as is most with Beethoven. The more you listen, the more elegance and poetry you find. These works were intimidating because of how expansive and grand they are, but I know much more about them than when I started, so I suppose I’ve learned, but more importantly, enjoyed something.
We’ve got two more Beethoven posts coming up this week (I know!) before we move onto something else, so please do stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.