Nicolas Altstaedt, Alexander Lonquich
Beethoven: The 5 Cello Sonatas
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-11-18
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote five sonatas for piano and cello (German: “Sonate für Pianoforte und Violoncell”) typically called “cello sonatas”, which is not exactly correct. The sonatas cover the three main periods in Beethoven’s oeuvre: two (op.5/1 and op.5/2) are from his “early” period. This was a time in which the composer aimed at making himself known as one of the foremost pianists in Europe, hence the fairly virtuosic piano part. The sonata op.69 shows the composer at the height of his popularity as composer and musician in general—a work of classic forms and proportion, probably the most popular of the sonatas—and certainly the longest one.
The last two sonatas, op.102/1 and op.102/2, are part of Beethoven’s late oeuvre. They emerged at a time in which the composer had long given up caring about conventions and rules, pursuing primarily what his own mind told him to do. The fact that at that time he had lost his earsight certainly increased his tendency to ignore conventions in his compositions.
All Five Sonatas in One Concert?
Chamber music events tend to attract smaller audiences than orchestral, let alone choral concerts, maybe also less than piano recitals: it sometimes sounds as if chamber music was something for specialists. Performing a duo recital with all five Beethoven sonatas—just one composer, “all music of the same kind”—seems even more risky. But sure, the name Beethoven is a safe bet. Indeed, there were a fair number of people in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich that night.
But apart from economic hurdles, there are also musical questions. true, the program appears non-problematic (except, as stated, it’s “a lot of the same kind”). However, not all of Beethoven’s cello sonatas are exactly easy to “understand”. For example, op.5/2 in G minor may in parts appear dry, “difficult”. Even more so the late sonatas: some may have wondered how hard it can be to get “into” some of the movements—particularly towards the end of a 2.5 hour duo recital. One would hope that the majority of the visitors knew what they were up to.
In my view, one major challenge with Beethoven’s cello sonatas is with the acoustics, or, more precisely, with the acoustic balance between the two instruments. Beethoven didn’t write these sonatas for modern, large concert venues, nor for the modern Steinway grand (the instrument here was a Steinway D-274).
Beethoven rather wrote them with early pianos in mind. For the early sonatas, this would have been something like a fortepiano by Anton Walter (1752 – 1826), for the late sonatas an instrument by Conrad Graf (1782 – 1851), or maybe a Broadwood. All these instruments have a much lighter tough, less volume, brighter and richer colors in sound, plus additional “gadgets” such as the moderator, or the bassoon stop in the Broadwood pianos. None of these have survived in modern instruments. Performing Beethoven’s sonatas on modern instruments and in big venues almost inevitable turns out to be a major, acoustic challenge, with the danger of leaving behind the composer and/or the listener.
Upon entering the concert venue that evening, I saw the Steinway D-274 with fully open lid, which instantly dampened my expectations. I wish my fears hadn’t turned into reality, but unfortunately, they were fully justified. I just don’t get it: why, why is chamber music (almost) always played with open lid? Is it the vanity of the venue provider (Tonhalle-Gesellschaft in this case), the concert organizer, the piano tuner / provider, or of the pianist? Does any (or several) of these perhaps think the sonority (and/or the size of the venue) mandates an open piano lid? That’s a real pity, as it severely affected the listening experience—and Beethoven’s sonatas!
This is the second time within a few weeks that I heard the pianist Alexander Lonquich (*1960) as duo partner in concert. The last time was on 2017-09-23 in Schaffhausen, with the violinist Carolin Widmann. In this concert, the duo partner was the cellist Nicolas Altstaedt (*1982, see also Wikipedia for information). Also the latter I have heard before, in a chamber music concert in Zurich, on 2015-12-08.
In past concerts, I experienced Alexander Lonquich as being a very prudent, musically vera apt duo partner and accompanist. He played with excellent agility, articulated carefully. His scale and runs were very clear and slick, his accents always clear and precise, and he also maintained excellent balance between the two hands. Overall, I never had any doubts about his virtuosity—and he always kept close contact with his duo partner.
I found this artist to be fascinating! One can best describe his playing as historically informed in the true and best sense of the word! He resisted the temptation to try fight the power of the concert grand by using a dense, big sound and broad articulation. Quite to the contrary: his playing was very subtle, the articulation light (often just merely speckling the notes of a melody), often entirely without vibrato. Altstaedt used vibrating primarily for highlighting key notes, or to mark intense parts of a phrase.
Despite the lightness, his playing was full of soul, down to the faintest, merely whispered pianissimo. But he was certainly also able to place strong accents—strong enough to make the cello momentarily grunt on the low strings (e.g., those strong accents towards the end of the introduction of the first movement, or also later in the same movement).
With all this, Nicolas Altstaedt kept close contact to the pianist. He was sitting at the pianists end of the curvature of the piano’s rim, at the edge, even slightly turned towards the pianist.
Sadly, though, a lot of Altstaedt’s subtle, delicate, refined playing was lost in the dominant sound of the concert grand—especially in the early sonatas, in which the composer was seeking to establish himself as a brilliant piano virtuoso. A historic fortepiano would not only have established proper balance. It would at the same time have offered a much richer, more colorful sound. And a sound much more adapted to Nicolas Altstaedt’s way of playing the cello.
AI have discussed this cello sonata from 1796 in a separate blog post comparing several recordings. Here, I’m just giving the list of the movements:
- Adagio sostenuto — Allegro — Adagio — Presto — Tempo primo
- Rondo: Allegro vivace
For reviews of other concert performances of this sonata see here.
I. Adagio sostenuto — Allegro — Adagio — Presto — Tempo primo
The two artists appear to have a preference for a fast tempo. Actually, so fast that scales and fast figures were in danger of sounding superficial. However, I would not state that they were too fast here. The one thing that I would blame on the pianist is a slight tendency to push (again) the tempo towards the end of a movement, or of a section. And in this sonata, he arpeggiated certain sforzati in the first movement, e.g., towards the end of the exposition, or at the equivalent places near the end of the recapitulation. I don’t see a good reason for these arpeggiandi.
Alexander Lonquich was careful in the use of the sustain pedal, and he tried avoiding dynamic excesses. In the beginning of the recital he probably was particularly cautious and careful. He even used the una corda (shift) pedal to achieve p or pp, even though Beethoven never asks for it in any of these sonatas. Yet, over large stretches, particularly in the first half of the concert, i.e., in op.5/1 up to op.69, the piano was drowning the cello in the sheer volume of its massive sound. The piano just didn’t (could not possibly) fit the filigree nature of Altstaedt’s cello playing.
II. Rondo: Allegro vivace
Very fast, at the limits in the semiquavers, at a point where the tempo starts affecting clarity (also and particularly for the cello part). The pianist carefully observed dynamic annotations, but couldn’t possibly “fix” the balance.
Altstaedt even managed to expose some dreamy moments in this fast movement. At no point (throughout the concert, as already mentioned) I had the feeling that he tried expanding his tone in order to cope with the sound volume of the Steinway grand.
Beethoven composed the sonata in G minor, op.5/2, in the same year as op,.5/1: 1796. Also here, I have a separate blog post comparing several recordings that contains a detailed description. The movements are as follows:
- Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo — Allegro molto più tosto presto
- Rondo: Allegro
I. Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo — Allegro molto più tosto presto
Altstaedt set short accents, then was letting the sound soften rapidly, and he often appeared to listen to the vanishing sounds that one could hardly hear in the audience (even without the piano!). Some very nice cantilenas in the cello in the Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo part (primarily where the piano accompaniment is scarce), with really soulful and warm-hearted cello playing, even without dense tone and lots of vibrato! Needless to say that the piano had a hard time competing with the soft, subtle sounds from the cello. At the transition to the Allegro molto più tosto presto Beethoven wrote several general rests: these were full of tension and suspense—excellent moments!
The Allegro part is a sonata movement. Throughout the entire evening, the artists performed all of Beethoven’s repeats (including the repeat of development and recap in this movement!)—despite the length of the concert: excellent! Actually, this particular exposition we heard even three times, as near the end of the second pass, one of the cello’s strings broke, which forced the artists to interrupt the performance for a few minutes, then doing a third pass of the exposition.
In the development part, the piano was occasionally pushing the tempo. And, as already indicated, when the piano had dense textures and was playing f or ff, the cello had no chance of making itself heard, no matter how strong the tone. This really calls for a historic fortepiano (or a replica).
II. Rondo: Allegro
Playful cello, mostly merely spiccato—excellent! The presence of the piano naturally is too strong again, in places where it only plays accompaniment for the cello. And the tempo is at the limit for the piano mechanics, causing fast figures to sound superficial. But I liked the discreet playing in the Coda.
The big, central cello sonata in Beethoven’s oeuvre, the one in A major, op.69, is from 1808. And again, I have a blog post with more detailed description and a comparison of various recordings. This sonata has four movements:
- Allegro ma non tanto
- Scherzo: Allegro molto
- Adagio cantabile
- Allegro vivace
For reviews of other concert performances of this sonata see here.
For many, this must have been the highlight of the evening: a sonata of utmost, Apollonian beauty and classic proportions, showing the composer at the height of his mastership as a (classic) composer. Balance was still an issue here, but from the texture of the composition, it was less severe than in the early sonatas.
I. Allegro ma non tanto
I found already the beginning (cello solo) remarkable: all sotto voce, with virtually no vibrato, mysterious, full of expectations. Also later, Nicolas Altstaedt used vibrato only very selectively. In the exposition, prior to the second theme, Beethoven writes a fermata and a short, little cadenza, ad libitum. In Altstaedt’s interpretation, this was a miraculous moment, just whispered or murmured, almost casual: wonderful! Also later in the movement, the best moments were those in ppp on the cello. The movement ended with a surprise ending, the Coda first ff and legato on the cello (maybe the most intense playing in this movement), then apparently dying in pp, like with a silent ending with a fermata, then, for three bars, a sudden, dramatic speed-up and crescendo into the closing cadence.
II. Scherzo: Allegro molto
The Scherzo comes with an interesting: the theme head is all syncopated in the descant and the cello, with pairs of crotchets on the same tone, with a ligature across the bar line. Many interpretations play just that—syncopes. But on the piano, Beethoven marks the two crotchets with 4-3 fingering—on the same note. This really only makes sense if that finger change has an audible effect. I therefore think that Alexander Lonquich’s approach to play the second crotchet actively (rather than just holding the tone) is correct. It makes that note sound like an echo of the first one. And Altstaedt imitated this on the cello, by playing his crotchets legato, but with two accents, almost like portato. I have not heard the cello part this way, at least not that clearly—but it makes a lot of sense to me.
In this movement, I found the tempo quite fast, maybe at the limit, always moving forward, but not pushing, and with excellent articulation (the fast tempo permitting) on both instruments. I also liked how tension was created within phrases, through diligent agogics.
III. Adagio cantabile
The Adagio cantabile is merely a short, 18-bar introduction / transition movement to the Allegro vivace. Marvelous singing on the cello, sticking to the p annotation (excerpt for very few crescendo markings). And there is yet another ad libitum cadenza at the final fermata, a truly miraculous moment, retracting into ppp and below, ending in another, whispered, almost silent fermata, seemingly endless. Then, the beautiful Allegro vivace theme follows as true relief, the listener can breathe again…
IV. Allegro vivace
Here, the tempo seemed a tad too fast (to me, at least), at a point where on the Steinway grand fast runs started to sound superficial, or at least didn’t show much differentiation. The cello was faring better in that respect (was the tempo adjusted for the cello?), and again I really liked Altstaedt’s clean, almost vibrato-less playing in long notes and cantilenas, and once more in his whispered ppp—excellent!
Beethoven composed the last two cello sonatas, the one in C major, op.102/1, and the one in D major, op.102/2, in 1815. I don’t have a comparison post with details on the composition yet. This is in preparation and will be referenced through the summary post on the Beethoven cello sonatas. In this concert report, I’m just listing the movements:
- Andante —
- Allegro vivace
- Adagio — Tempo d’Andante —
- Allegro vivace
For reviews of other concert performances of this sonata see here.
Musically, the late sonatas are definitely more demanding, and there are sections that may feel dry, austere. However, both late sonatas also feature easier sections, beautiful cantilenas, and “inner beauty”. And from their texture / disposition, they pose less balance issues than their predecessor sonatas, even with the modern Steinway grand, and even with the lid fully open.
I. Andante —
A good, fluent tempo, calm, but not celebrated, subtle dynamics and agogics, also (and in particular) on the piano—then…
II. Allegro vivace
a strong contrast, lots of grip in the earnest theme that follows. There was also grip in the agogics, in those compressing, punctuated ascents in the main theme. Again, in the cello part, I liked how Nicolas Altstaedt played out the cantilenas, but did not celebrate the music, rather gave room (and time) for the instrument, the strings to resonate. The balance issues were present still, primarily in the development part—but not nearly as bad as in the early sonatas.
III. Adagio — Tempo d’Andante —
Another transition movement, both pensive and full of tension and expectation: restrained, quiet singing on the cello, except of course for the f interjections, with distinct agogics. Subtle in the cantilenas, deliberately raw (and without vibrato) in the interjections.
IV. Allegro vivace
Very active playing, full of drive, with playful segments. In contrast, there are intermittent, sudden “holding moments”, again full of tension and secrecy. An excellent approach to this movement, which is difficult, challenging—primarily interpretation-wise.
For general remarks (valid here as well) see the sonata op.102/1 above. The last sonata has three movements:
- Allegro con brio
- Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto —
- Allegro — Allegro fugato
I. Allegro con brio
After the austere moments in the previous sonata, this one appears serene, even playful, at least in the first two movements. The Allegro con brio is alternating between calm, melodic segments and lively, strongly rhythmic segments. Excellent agogics, very differentiated in the dynamics. Especially the cello part stood out with subtleties in articulation, agogics and dynamics. And again: tension, expectation…
II. Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto —
even stronger here: a first (D minor) part consisting of waiting in expectation and tension only, it seems. It seemed to take a long time until the dolce part (D major) with its serene, Apollonian cantilena (often just whispered) appeared—pure joy to listen to! That’s only an episode, though, as the music returns to another earnest, almost gloomy, painful segment. That leads to a last transition period, which once more builds up tension (ppp and less in the cello!), expectation towards the final movement:
III. Allegro — Allegro fugato
The Allegro is only four bars. What follows is a compositorial masterpiece, a complex double fugue (Allegro fugato), with the theme initially just p (even pp or ppp in this performance!), leggiermente. I liked the fact that in the f parts—full of sf syncopes—the artists did not switch to dry roughness, as often heard in the fugue (it’s more than an academic exercise, after all!). For most of the time, the fugue was played softly, restrained, though clearly highlighting the fugue themes.
This ended a really long duo recital—actually not: the artists offered an encore:
Encore — Britten: Cello Sonata, op.65, II. Scherzo pizzicato
The extra in this concert was the second movement, Scherzo-Pizzicato (Allegretto) from the Cello Sonata, op.65, which Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote in 1961. What triggered this sonata was an encounter with the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) in 1960. Rostropovich then commissioned Britten to write this sonata, as well as later several additional works. The Scherzo-pizzicato is a short, playful, piece—catchy, fun for the musicians (obviously) as well as for the listener. A good idea to add this after the demanding late sonatas by Beethoven!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.