Joy and James Lisney in Fine Beethoven Performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven Joy Lisney (cello), James Lisney (piano), Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, 1.12.2014 (RB)

Cello Sonata in F, Op 5/1
Cello Sonata in G, Op 5/2
Cello Sonata in A, Op 69
Cello Sonata in C, Op 102/1
Cello Sonata in D, Op 102/2


I sometimes think that we in the UK do not shout loudly enough about the talents of some of our own Classical performers.  James Lisney is a case in point:  he is a consummate interpreter of the works of Beethoven and Schubert and is every bit as good in this repertoire as pianists such as Paul Lewis.  He was joined at this concert by his cellist daughter, Joy Lisney, who was making her Southbank début and who clearly shares her father’s affinity for the music of Beethoven.

 The Beethoven cello sonatas chart his development as a composer and they span all three creative periods in his life.  The two Op 5 sonatas were written in 1796 and they are both very much sonatas for piano with cello, full of exciting virtuoso passagework for the piano.  The third sonata was written during Beethoven’s middle period and it is the first sonata in which the piano and cello featured as equal partners.  The last two sonatas effectively kicked off Beethoven’s third and final creative period and they are shorter works which start the composer’s journey towards the transcendent and the sublime.  The D major sonata ends with a fugue which prefigures the fugal movements in the late piano sonatas and string quartets.

 There was much to admire in the performances of the two early Op 5 sonatas.  James Lisney’s playing was admirably clear and cleanly articulated and I enjoyed a lot of the delightful scampering passagework.  There was a real sense of joie de vivre in the Allegro of the F major sonata while a sense of playful mischief pervaded the last movement of the G major sonata.  Joy Lisney played with remarkable composure and she produced a clean, focused and strongly projected sound that seemed just right for this music.  She produced an exceptionally beautiful singing line in the first movement of the G major sonata and I enjoyed her light, effervescent semiquavers in the second movement of the same sonata.  Father and daughter had a very easy and fluid rapport and there was a lovely interplay of ideas and an excellent balance of sound.  There are endless debates around the tempo of Beethoven’s sonatas and his metronome markings but I wondered if the second movement of the F major and the first movement of the G major might both have been taken a shade slower.  While it is important to dispatch these works with brilliance and élan there is an argument for allowing the music slightly more space to breathe.

The A major sonata gives equal prominence to both instruments and it provided more opportunities for Joy Lisney to show what she could do.  I loved the warmth of her playing and her beauty of tone while the phrasing and intonation were immaculate.  There were a number of striking contrasts in the first movement and I enjoyed the elegantly shaped phrases, the inventiveness of the playing and the rich palette of tone colours.  James Lisney played the opening of the scherzo with just the right amount of rhythmic bite while Joy gave us some gorgeous double stopping in the trio.  Both players made the most of the vocal writing in the slow introduction to the last movement while the final Allegro vivace was a real joy to listen to – all of the composer’s unfettered exuberance and high spirits shone through in this performance.

The last two cello sonatas are tricky works to interpret and show Beethoven at his most metaphysical and abstract.  I was struck by the maturity and versatility of Joy Lisney’s performance, quite remarkable in such a young performer.  There was  wonderful sense of shared intimacy in the opening Adagio of the C major sonata while the Lisneys really made the most of the tonal and dynamic contrasts in the ensuing Allegro, giving us a robust and muscular performance.  I enjoyed the way in which the second movement gradually opened up to reveal its secrets while there was an excellent balance between intellectual rigour and musical spontaneity in the final section.  The opening movement of the D major sonata had a wonderful rhythmic buoyancy and crispness while the lyrical material had an easy flow and lightness of texture.  Miss Lisney gave us some gorgeously rapt and eloquent playing in the slow movement.  The transition to the major key was handled beautifully – a shaft of sunlight radiating in to dispel the dark thoughts.  The final fugue was played with exceptional clarity and the voicing was excellent although I would have welcomed a little more interplay between cello and piano and perhaps a little more made of the contrasting material within the movement.

Superb playing from the Lisneys: Joy Lisney is clearly a young player with enormous potential and we can expect to hear great things from her.

Robert Beattie




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