Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Beethoven's youthful brilliance lights up First Friday

First Lutheran Church, with Eric Byers (inset left), and Robert Thies (inset right).


Robert Thies and Eric Byers, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

This is going to go on for a long time.

“This,” of course, is Beethoven’s even more pre-eminent presence than usual in concert programs, though the 250th anniversary of his birth is still over a year away. Just the previous weekend, for the South Bay Chamber Music Society the cellist Eric Byers performed the “Archduke” Trio with fellow members of the Hollywood Piano Trio (review), and here he was back again, together with pianist Robert Thies, at Classical Crossroads’ November “First Friday” lunchtime recital for the Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2.

Title-page from the first published edition
of Beethoven's Cello Sonatas Op. 5.
Introducing the performance, Mr. Byers noted that, as usual with such works from the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, this and Beethoven’s other cello sonatas were designated “for piano with accompaniment by a cello,” and this particular one certainly has a full and demanding piano part.

Nonetheless, the two Op. 5 sonatas—relatively youthful works composed (while the 25-year-old Beethoven was on a concert tour) in Berlin for the Duport brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis, master cellists at the King of Prussia’s court—are now regarded as the first in which the cello, hitherto a continuo instrument, becomes the piano’s equal partner.

In terms of overall expressive approach, the instruments’ aural parity, and tempo relationships between movements, this was a notably mellifluous and well-balanced account of the Second Cello Sonata. Like its companion Op. 5 No. 1 in F major, it is nominally in two movements, the first with a slow introduction, but in Op. 5 No. 2 this introduction is so extended that it becomes virtually an independent movement; indeed some sources describe the sonata as being in three movements.

The cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-
1818). Either he or his younger 
Jean-Louis (1749-1819) 
gave the first
performances of the 
Op. 5 sonatas,
with Beethoven at the keyboard
This long opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo section is dramatic and declamatory from the start, but both players avoided histrionics in the many sforzandi and other expression marks with which it is peppered, opting instead for an elegiac, forward-flowing manner that managed almost to maintain the sense of still being preparatory throughout its five long minutes.

When the transition finally comes it’s surely tongue-in-cheek, so long does Beethoven hesitate before he launches into the main Allegro molto piĆ¹ tosto presto. Mr. Byers and Mr. Thies took these hesitancies at face value, neither exaggerating nor downplaying, and by moving into that main part of the movement at a quite modest pace for such a precipitate marking they skillfully drew it together as a more convincing whole than usual.

Repeats? As well as the expected da capo for the exposition, Beethoven asks—uniquely amongst his cello sonatas—for the second half to be repeated as well, which if observed can push the whole first movement towards the 20-minute mark. Mr. Byers and Mr. Thies took neither repeat, which was appropriate in the context of their relaxed and genial approach thus far and the very extensive Rondo finale to come, and contributed to the sense of overall balance.

In this finale, Beethoven seems in such inexhaustible high spirits that he can barely get himself to the point when “enough is enough,” and the duo matched him all the way to the end, relishing the sheer joie de vivre and invention with which the movement abounds and navigating with quicksilver skill the many rhythmic subtleties and dislocations that might wrong-foot less expert players—an object lesson in how to keep a constantly and unpredictably moving ball in the air for 10 minutes and then catch it with all hands in the final measures.

As an encore, they played the Andante third movement from Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. I'm not a fan of extracting single movements from larger works conceived and meant to be heard as a whole. To me, this came across as a devotedly played and very lovely, but unmoored fragment, needing the whole sonata context to anchor and reveal its true depth and significance. However, its tranquility was a welcome contrast after all the Beethovenian pugnacity and bounce, and was greatly appreciated by the audience. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, November 1, 2019.
Images: First Lutheran Church: Elaine Lim; Eric Byers and Robert Thies: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Sonata title-page: IMSLP; Duport: British Museum.

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