Queyras and Melnikov in Perfect Dialogue in Beethoven’s Chamber Music

Beethoven: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 1.12.2014. (GD)

12 Variations in F on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66
Cello Sonata in C Op. 102 No.1
12 Variations on a theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO. 45
Cello Sonata in D Op. 102 No.2

This was the second and final Wigmore recital in which the complete works for piano and cello by Beethoven were performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. We know that Beethoven revered Mozart, the man and his music. He was particularly affected by Die Zauberflöte with its mix of solemn choruses and symbolic (or allegorical) pantomime quirky humour. We often forget that soon after the premiere of Die Zauberflöte in Vienna 1791, there followed many such performances, sometimes given in a puppet theatre and often in cut versions. I mention this rather strange (or not so strange?) deviation as the first set of variations played from Die Zauberflöte is not only well designed for variation transcription, but also for a kind of fantasy fairy-tale tone – the tone here given resonance  by the increasingly elaborate glockenspiel part – with the glockenspiel part in itself as a miniature set of variations. Beethoven simplifies the initial theme from Papgeno’s aria, abridging the melody, and also ignoring Mozart’s changes in metre and tempo. But these changes are well tailored for this kind of variation form. This and the following variations; including  an instrumental dialogue, a mock march, and two interlinking variations in the minor, were all given just the right resonance and characterisation. Guihen Queyras and Melnikov were in perfect dialogue, a dialogue which projected both the difference and unity between cello and piano.

 We do not know exactly how Beethoven expected these works to be programmed, but tonight’s and yesterday’s more or less chronological order seemed to work well. I can almost imagine the first set of variations as the hors d’oeuvreand the Cello Sonata as the main course. And actual time here is no register of quality or content. Beethoven at this time, 1815, was experimenting in more concentrated forms of composition; we only have to listen to the Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.90 to realise this. Op.102, No.1 lasts around 15 minutes but it is incredibly rich and diverse in content. It is interesting to note that although the sonata’s main key is C major, Beethoven, in the opening melodic Andante, deploys a ‘foreign’ key A minor (actually the relative minor), only to re-establish the home key in the later points of transition. I have rarely heard the ‘violent’ contrast between the Andante and the following Allegro vivace, a transitional violent contrast Beethoven fully intended, played with such conviction.  But the ‘shock’ impact of the sudden contrast never sounded motivated  by ‘effect’, it was always within the dramatic narrative of the whole work. The startling clarity achieved by Guihen Queyras was partly due to his superbly sustained technique, eschewing all instrumental rhetoric and cloying vibrato. It was also evident that Melnikov did not merely ‘accompany’, but was in total dialogue throughout.

 The form of this sonata, two quick sonata-form movements, both preceded with a slow introduction, is unique in Beethoven. At the time of the  two Op. 102 sonatas, Beethoven was preoccupied with contrapuntal and fugal composition. Indeed the finale of Op 102, No.1 was to have concluded with a fully fledged fugal movement, contrasting with the second ‘slow’ movement, with its richly expressive intonations of the opening ‘slow’ movement. But the composer changed his mind, reserving the fugal form for the last movement of the second sonata Op. 102. But he inserted a challenging contrapuntal design in the development section of the first sonata. Again both Melniklov and Guihen Queyras fully confronted the challenge. Again such sustained clarity and diversity of tone and texture, a real working through of the multiple complexities  of this unique music.

 Beethoven also greatly admired Handel, again paying especial attention to Handel’s contrapuntal/fugal styles. The variations on a theme from Judas Maccabaeus relates to the chorus ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’. Handel used the theme in other oratorios, notably Joshua. It has the sound of an anthem, with none of the eloquence and finesse of the variation theme from Die Zauberflöte. But this was no problem for Beethoven; think of the trite little Diabelli opening waltz theme from which develops into one of his  most magnificent compositions. All the tonal contrasts, major/minor, and virtuoso variations were delivered with maximum finesse and virtuosity, while always sustaining a total musicality. Of special note were the wonderfully melodic dialogues, and a lyrical, songful variation  for solo cello. The virtuoso elements never degenerated into a virtuosity for its own sake, never any statements of performative narcissism. Everything here was for the music, as the composer wrote it.

 The second sonata of Op.102, although as thematically rich and economically composed as the first Op.102,  follows a more conventional mode of form and structure. But again Guihen Queyras and Melnikov tellingly realised the dramatic contrast between the opening bare octaves of the Allegro con brio and the more restrained and lyrical counter subject; also the contrast between the whole first movement and the deeply introspective D minor Adagio con molto. Although only lasting around 8 minutes this movement has an oceanic breadth, with a glowing and lyrical D major middle section. Here Guihen Queyrs’s cantabile tone was wonderfully lucid and songful without ever giving way to any kind of exaggerated tonal rhetorical indulgence. There was extraordinary phrasing and  harmonic shaping  here from both soloists. The poignancy of the Adagio positively gained from such purity of tone and sustained clarity of execution. The fugal finale had such ‘movement’, such a sense of discovery and invention, as when various thematic ideas, ‘subject and countersubject’ are  juxtaposed and inverted. Contrapuntal rhythmic cross-overs were sharp and distinct without ever interrupting the diverse course of the movement.

 As a fitting encore we were given the beautifully eloquent Fantasiestücke Op. 73 No 1 by Schumann, in a compellingly poetic and sensitive rendition.

Geoff Diggines

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