Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin Explore Beethoven with Sophistication and Depth

CanadaCanada Beethoven: Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 15.3.2015 (GN)

7 Variations on ‘Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflőte, Wo046
Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2
Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op.102, No.2

On the face of it, it may seem a particularly odd pairing to have cellist Steven Isserlis and fortepianist Robert Levin come together in Beethoven. While the eloquent cellist has sometimes gone back as far as far as Bach and Haydn, his predominant focus has been romantic and early 20th-century composers, avoiding Beethoven altogether. Levin has recorded ample Bach and Mozart, but it seems that his lone recording foray into Beethoven is the Piano Concertos with John Eliot Gardner. But one must not underestimate great musicians: when they set their minds on doing something new, the result is usually remarkably fresh and revealing, and so it proves here.

This project to tackle the Beethoven Cello Sonatas and Variations started over five years ago, leading to the release of a much-praised recording on Hyperion last year. The objectives of this undertaking seem clear: to illuminate the works in a textually faithful and ‘authentic’ way while not in any respect sacrificing the outstanding individual attributes of each artist. Every bit of Isserlis’ silken articulation and probing intelligence is present, as is the pristine clarity and execution associated with his compatriot. At the same time, one dimension of authenticity seemingly lies in their attempt to generate much stronger contrasts between the composer’s thoughtful musings and his forceful rhythmic statements. Isserlis does use gut strings on his Stradivarius while, for these performances, Robert Levin employs one fortepiano (c. 1790) for the earlier sonatas and an original 1847 Broadwood for the later ones. The former seemingly allows more of the cello’s tonal fabric to stand out; the latter probably secures a better integration at the bottom end.

Reviewing conflicts unfortunately meant that I could only hear three out of the five sonatas, but I have no doubt this was sufficient to establish the immense quality of the whole. In fact, I cannot think that anything could have been better than the performances of the Op. 102 sonatas in this final recital. Both of these sonatas are terse works and fragmented in form, but the meaning and cohesion that the artists found was remarkable. One key is Isserlis’s ability to achieve a very long line in his articulation, sustaining a myriad of different subtle shadings and feelings that resonate with the listener for subsequent reference.

 In the soft, suspended musings that open Op. 102, No. 1, we already had a variety of pointers for later use. This opening was most sensitively done, the cellist almost starting from a ‘white’ tone before warming in degree to partake in the duet with the piano; then, the strong, angular rhythmic statement, punched out uncompromisingly, moved with great concentration to the abrupt end. The opening of the second movement seemed familiar because of the care taken in the first; we were not in foreign territory. This made the eventual recall of the opening theme of the first quite magical, and the following animated Allegro took the work home with great character. Everything was so sure, Isserlis dispatching all his varied expressions with discerning thought and indeed a special elegance, Levin in perfect balance with his partner at every step.

 The second sonata of Op. 102 maintained this level of distinction, exhibiting the same stellar interpretative judgment right from the opening. Isserlis’s tone control was magical, especially in the softer statements, finding fragile corners and a particularly long and heartfelt line in the Adagio. The accuracy and structural integration of the closing Allegro fugato were formidable.

 The Sonata Op. 5, No.2 comes from a much earlier period, and here it was the smaller fortepiano that immediately gained attention, so intimate, athletic and sparkling in Levin’s hands, creating more separation between its tonal output and that of the cello. This was another eye-opening interpretation, so withdrawn on one hand, so combustible on the other. I have rarely heard such an austere and inward presentation of its opening theme, rhetorical pauses seeming to last an eternity at the slow speed adopted. Then, the cataclysmic, almost abandoned, thrust into the Allegro – dancing and skipping along, mixing unbridled passion with ebullience and joy. Somehow, these dynamics did feel strangely authentic, imagining for a moment how some 19th-century virtuosos might have attacked the work in an informal period gathering. Granted, there were many delicious moments of yielding repose along the way, but what really stood out was the sheer expressive variety and ardour of it all – sometimes playful and witty, sometimes rough, sometimes effusive, all quite vivid and physical. While the cello occasionally did overwhelm the fortepiano, this was a performance of real individuality and substance.

 It was a most revealing concert overall, one that featured an eloquent Magic Flute Variations as a tasty curtain-raiser. I have no doubt that the interpretation of the two Op. 102 sonatas established standards of sorts. The Op. 5, No. 2 is perhaps not for the faint of heart, and even I might be tempted to retreat sometimes to the relative sobriety of, say, a Lynn Harrell or Pierre Fournier. But the interpretations of Isserlis and Levin do stand as a wonderfully committed effort to explore and dig deep, offering a unique hybrid of romantic expression and classical discipline. They also make the recent traversal by Daniel Muller-Schott and Angela Hewitt look somewhat pretty by comparison. In many ways, the Beethoven of Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim and their friends in the late 1960s had a similar daring, though we are more tolerant of extremes now than we were then. As far as authenticity goes, Isserlis and Levin seem to have moved this concept some distance from the one that Anthony Pleeth and Melvyn Tan and Anner Bylsma and Malcolm Bilson visualized two decades ago.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly modified form on

Leave a Comment