Youthful Cello Sonatas Played with Youthful Energy and Passion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Richard Strauss: Guy Johnston (cello), Alasdair Beaton (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 07.02.14  (GPu)

Beethoven: Cello Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op.5 No.2
Richard Strauss:  Cello Sonata in F, op.6

Two relatively youthful cello sonatas, played by a young pianist and cellist, made for a very pleasant lunchtime recital in the excellent series of lunchtime concerts organised by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Beethoven’s two Opus 5 cello sonatas where written in the composer’s early to mid twenties; Strauss’s solitary cello sonata was, somewhat astonishingly, written before he reached twenty.

Beethoven’s sonatas, though written during some years when much of the composer’s work was relatively imitative of earlier composers (notably Haydn and Mozart, of course) are themselves very innovative. Indeed they mark a major step in the development of the cello sonata. More than any previous sonatas written for keyboard and cello, they provide a real sense of dialogue between the two instruments: no longer is the keyboard playing a supportive quasi-continuo role, now the work exists in the mutual and full interplay between the two instruments. Nor had any earlier composers in the form written works of such a scale, by which I don’t only mean matters of length, but also issues of seriousness and of emotional and intellectual range and depth.

In the broadly conceived adagio which introduces the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.5 No.2 there is a repeated alteration of mood and rhetoric, well described by Maria Grazia Sità when she characterises the introduction as “continuamente oscillante tra declamazione e cantabilità”. On the whole Guy Johnston ‘sang’ more convincingly than he ‘declaimed’. Throughout it was that side of the cello’s ‘humanity’ of voice with which Johnston seemed most perfectly at home. The main body of the opening movement (‘allegro molto più tosto presto’ brought some high energy playing (though with an occasional loss of tone). The writing for piano here is excellent and Alasdair Beaton articulated it beautifully – lucid and precise, without ever being merely pedantic. The interplay between Beaton and Johnston was perfect here, a real sense of the sharing and swapping of ideas between the two instruments being achieved. Their reading of the whole movement was vivid in its alternation of passages of fervour with passages of grace.

In the second (Rondo) movement of the sonata the dominant mood is rather different. This is more (con)genial music, with a sense, at times, of mild laughter and social joy. The writing makes more than a few technical demands on both musicians, demands met with assurance and confidence on this occasion. Beaton was especially impressive in the beautiful piano introduction to the movement and Guy Johnston’s work conveyed both the music’s freshness and its occasional brilliance in a thoroughly engaging manner.

Strauss’s solitary Cello Sonata found Johnston and Beaton fully responsive to the exuberance and occasional showiness of its music. Indeed the duo seemed more fully at ease here (despite the difficulty of some of the writing) than they had in the Beethoven. Good and enjoyable as their reading of the Beethoven sonata was, it failed fully to bring to light some of the depths of their work (as, indeed, do most performances of the piece), but in the Strauss one had little or no sense that anything of substance in the work had been left undiscovered or uncommunicated.

Cynics might say that that was because the Strauss is a less profound work, and there would surely be some truth in the observation. This is self-consciously clever and youthfully self-confident music, with a fluency that can sound merely glib – but didn’t in this performance. Both Guy Johnston (especially) and Alasdair Beaton clearly relished this music, revelling in its rhythmic changes and transitions, its assertiveness and the sheer fun of much of its inventiveness. In the central andante they responded well to the greater gravity of the music, especially in the movement’s opening, though heard after the Beethoven, even here Strauss’s music sounds more like the external gestures of emotion than the profound reality and the homophonic rather stretches the imagination of the young Strauss. But playing so beautiful (Johnston’s phrasing and line were exquisite) was a joy in itself, with a persuasive stillness and sense of rapture. In the final movement the tone is more ludic, full of the kind of wit the mature Straus was later to exploit in Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and other works. This performance captured the playfulness of the music very well along with a proper sense of its expansiveness and its occasionally surprising harmonies.

All in all, this was a fine contribution  to the excellent series of lunchtime concerts organised by the royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, concerts which, deservedly, seem to be attracting increasingly large audiences.

Glyn Pursglove