Cello and Fortepiano show Beethoven’s (Relatively) Quieter Side

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 19.5.2012 (HS)

Though hearing Beethoven played on original instruments may no longer be the novelty it once was, the cello sonatas and other works for cello and piano definitely acquire a different aura when the much quieter fortepiano replaces a 10-foot grand piano in the partnership. For a good part of the evening I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual performances by the redoubtable cellist Steven Isserlis and his keyboard partner in music Robert Levin. My mind kept noting how different familiar phrases sounded.

To get that thought out of the way first, the much-quieter volume of sound coming out of the fortepiano—Levin playing on a beautifully veneered instrument built in 1822—drastically alters the balance we have become accustomed to hearing in today’s cello recitals. It puts Isserlis, playing on his Stradivarius, in much bolder relief. No matter how energetically Levin approached even the busiest or loudest passages, one could hear every nuance of the cello’s line. I found that to be revelatory when details that often go unnoticed jumped out of the fray. On the other hand, even when the solo line is meant to be secondary, as in phrases when the cello utters the bass line behind the keyboard’s lead, that line still came front and center no matter how quietly Isserlis tried to play it. Even if the idea of the pairing of cello and fortepiano is meant to be an equal partnership, for better or worse the cello wins on almost every phrase when both play simultaneously.

There are tradeoffs. When the music became softer and more delicate, the results could be breathtaking. On the other hand, when Beethoven goes for a big climax, the lack of power often made the moment seem weak.

Isserlis and Levin are touring the U.S. with pairs of concerts embracing Beethoven’s five cello sonatas and a few other pieces he wrote for cello. The two programs span most of Beethoven’s musical life, offering a compact version of the same journey reflected in the symphonies, the quartets or the piano sonatas. Filling out this first evening was a transcription of a horn sonata, and their encore moved even further afield.

That there was absolutely nothing mannered about this performance was something to treasure. Both Isserlis and Levin immersed themselves in the music, playing with welcome unanimity and delicate phrasing throughout. Intonation issues gnawed at the edges, however. The fortepiano needed tuning at intermission after several phrases sounded like they might have come from a barroom upright, and Isserlis, whose articulation on mid- and high-lying phrases was exquisite, sounded disconcertingly and unsettlingly sharp every time the line descended to a low root note.

That said, one of the highlights of the evening was the Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69, which concluded the program. Written about the same time as the Symphony No. 5, this amiable sonata creates a wonderful give-and-take between the two musical roles. Isserlis and Levin relished the way the lead shifts from one to the other, executing them with seamless phrasing. The sigh of relief at the end, as the questioning phrases finally reach accommodation, brought proceedings to a finish with a smile.

Similarly, though on a much less exalted plane, the Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen user Weibchen,” Op. 66, finished the first half and created the most appealing moments before intermission. Beethoven gives the jolly tune, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, a range of witty twists, and provides pages of virtuoso moments, but the quieter, simpler phrases came through best. Like the A Major Sonata, it also finishes with a happy sigh.

The opening work, Twelve Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, WoO 45, offered similar contrasts between brilliant and tender, but suffered from the lack of volume. The tune, a triumphal aria in march form, lacked oomph when compared with the support the cello can get from a modern piano. The early, almost Mozartean Sonata in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1, benefited from fewer decibels, the best moments again coming with the lyrical high-lying phrases.

The second half began with the Sonata in F Major for French Horn and Piano, Op. 17 (arranged for cello). The opening arpeggio fanfare may have sounded wan, especially imagining what a horn would sound like playing it (and how much it would stand out if supported by a full-throated piano sound). On the other hand, the contrasting high-lying lyrical phrases were absolutely gorgeous. Hearing these, it was easy to see why Isserlis was attracted to playing this music.

The encore offered a transcription for a very early piece Beethoven sketched for mandolin and harpsichord, yet another chance to imagine how different this fortepiano-cello partnership sounded from what Beethoven heard. When the mandolin and harpsichord played it, each note would have decayed quickly. The quiet simplicity of this pairing made for an appropriately delicate, almost evanescent, finish.

Harvey Steiman