Intensity, drama and passion from Gabetta and Melnikov at Kosmos Beethoven in Gstaad

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Kosmos Beethoven – Beethoven, Ries: Sol Gabetta (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Gstaad Digital Festival, broadcast live from Église de Saanen, Saanen, Gstaad, 9.8.2020. (CS)

Sol Gabetta (c) Julia Wesely

Beethoven – Cello Sonata No.1 in F major Op.5 No.1
Ferdinand Ries – Cello Sonata in G minor Op.125, Grande Sonate
Beethoven – Cello Sonata No.5 in D major Op.102 No.2

Facing cancellation, the Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy launched a Pop-up Festival 2020 which is being broadcast live – and is subsequently available on demand – from various venues in the Saanenland region of the Swiss Alps throughout August.  Kosmos Beethoven forms part of this digital festival and comprises four concerts dedicated the composer in this 250th anniversary year, all streamed from Saanen Church in the village of Gstaad.  The festival’s digital platform, which has been online for three years, is not just the portal for the concerts scheduled for August but also enables listeners to enjoy performances presented before live audiences in past years, all available for free.

The second Kosmos Beethoven concert saw Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, both of whom live in Switzerland, join forces to perform Beethoven’s first and last Cello Sonatas, which framed Ferdinand Ries’ Cello Sonata in G minor Op.125, known as the Grande Sonate.  It was strange to watch the pre-concert moments, and to hear the hum of the large audience in the pews and gallery of Saanen Church, some wearing masks but few ‘socially distanced’, as they anticipated the arrival of the musicians.  Such concert ‘routines’ seem a distant prospect in the UK at present.

The recital began with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.1 in F major, Melnikov choosing to perform on what looked to be a five-and-a-half octave piano.  The somewhat effortful rising phrases which open the Adagio sostenuto, were ‘released’ with Gabetta’s first statement of the theme, the cello’s tone unfolding and loosening, but agitation was never far away.  Here and throughout the long movement, the sound was gritty and ‘raw’, the bright clang of the keyboard bouncing off the edge of the cello’s sforzandi.  A daringly fast tempo made the Allegro quite a dizzy race.  The piano’s charging scales and helter-skelter ascents seemed an unstoppable fountain of metallic water-drops which Gabetta countered with some gutsy C-string playing – Beethoven repeated pushes the cello down to dig into the depths – though when the cello rose higher, the tone was strong with a nasally grain.

The movement felt like both a conversation and an attempt to win the argument.  Beethoven’s ceaseless invention created drama aplenty, and the performers were extremely attentive to the multitude of dynamic and articulation markings.  Amid the prevailing breathless busyness, the few moments of melodic repose were set in relief.  Changeable transitions back to the initial Adagio, with its upwards ‘sighs’ and then on, mischievously, into the Presto were persuasively handled.

There was no lessening of the intensity and haste in the ensuing, boisterous Allegro vivace, though the rondo form seemed less complex because there was a point of familiarity with the return of the theme, and thus a sense of ‘agreement’ rather than relentless discussion and argument.  This music demands not just considerable facility but also discipline and concentration: physical focus alongside really muscular energy – the steely strength in Gabetta’s hands as she sustained a contorted shape in order to negotiate a sequence of rapid octave leaps was impressive.  Again, there was structural and motivic dissolution towards the close: a quizzical Allegro, then a breakneck coda.  Beethoven challenges his musicians to make sense of his form, and Gabetta and Melnikov did so convincingly and with no let-up in the astonishing dynamism: by the end it felt as if there should have been fire flaming from the performers’ keys and strings.

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) was a close personal friend of Beethoven.  His late G minor sonata for cello and piano, which has come to be known as the Grande Sonate, was composed in 1823, almost 30 years after Beethoven’s first essay in the genre, and though the works share a prevailing intensity, the three decades are marked by a decisive shift of ‘character’, Ries’ work being more darkly Romantic in colour and mood.

Moving to a larger piano, Melnikov opened the Grave introduction with a ‘grand’ flourish followed by razor-sharp dotted rhythms which were absorbed the cello’s mysteries and melodising.  Gabetta ‘softened’ her tone now: it was no less robust or focused, but the ‘edges’ were more rounded and warm.  Both players were determined to emphasise the heightened emotion and theatricality of Ries’ restless gestures, and the following Allegro repeatedly contrasted a songful yearning with turbulence.  Ries’ forms are more conventional than Beethoven’s trouble-making experiments, and despite the extremes of mood – even fun and frolics made their presence felt at times, as Melnikov’s right-hand fingers spun silvery spirals of semiquavers, propelled by the cello’s pulsing pizzicati – the players here seemed to work together, to exchange and share, rather than to compete.  This was nowhere more evident than in the sustained lyricism of the central episodes, in which Gabetta and Melnikov shared and swapped roles as melody-maker and accompanist.  The Larghetto con moto abounds with small idiosyncrasies and unexpected detours which the duo bound together into a comforting whole, while not neglecting the quirkiness and whimsy.  They clearly enjoyed both the playful infectiousness of the Hungarian finale, Rondo: Allegretto, and its considerable technical demands, the latter serving the former with mesmerising panache.

The two cellos sonatas, composed in 1815, which form Beethoven’s Op.102 were the last accompanied sonatas that he wrote, and the changefulness, disconcerting juxtapositions and diversity of material that were to mark the compositions of his later works is evident from the opening bars of the D Major sonata.  Here, Melkinov injected an astonishing ‘spring’ into the piano’s leaping opening gesture, and though Gabetta attempted to assuage the fiery energy, she was soon drawn into the mercurial melange.  As in the first sonata, the wealth of meticulously defined detail was impressive and ensured that the drama never lessened.  And, again, there was a graininess – of agitation, defiance, sheer energy – in the cello’s tone at times, threatening to challenge even the more dulcet melodic fragments.

Beethoven marks the second movement Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto, and though he instructs that the steadily moving quavers of the opening are to be played mezza voce I found the cello’s footsteps a little too withdrawn and lacking in colour: there seems to me to be a funereal darkness at the start, and a threatening quality in the piano’s growling low pedal notes, which makes the ‘warmth’ of the later theme with its Alberti bass-like accompaniment even more forward-flowing.  But, perhaps this initial reticence was a deliberate ploy to emphasise the complexity and density of the developing motivic material and harmonic journey.

Who but Beethoven could take a simple scale – that most basic of musical units – and with a small shift of rhythmic placement, turn it into something rich and strange: something perfectly suited to spinning into a contrapuntal tapestry, part fantasy, part supreme logic.  In the final Allegro vivace, the rhythmic tightness, lucid textures and the never-ceasing ‘bite’ of the players’ articulation helped the listener to make sense of the music’s deliberate elusiveness.

The Swiss audience were clearly delighted with the music-making they’d enjoyed; their stamping feet, loud “bravos” and thunderous applause won the encore they so clearly desired.  Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.109 No.1 is a structurally less complicated but no less heart-tugging musical masterpiece, and in Gabetta’s and Melnikov’s hands it was never going to be run-of-the-mill or saccharine.  Instead, Mendelssohn was shown to be every bit as fired by intensity as his German predecessors.

Claire Seymour

The Kosmos Beethoven concerts at Gstaad Digital Festival continue with concerts by tenor Daniel Behle and pianist Jan Schultsz on 14th August and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Jonas Ahoonen on 15th August. For information click here.

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