Monday, 23 March 2009

The Complete Beethoven Cello Sonata Cycle / Review

Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (20 March 2009)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 23 March 2009.

There has not been a better time for Beethoven’s music in Singapore. His 32 piano sonatas were surveyed in a 10-recital cycle last year, while the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Lan Shui are midway through the 9 symphonies. Nothing however beats the endurance and concentration required for the five cello sonatas performed in a single concert.

This marathon event at the Conservatory lasted well over two hours, with the sonatas spread over three segments separated by two short intervals. At ten in the evening, after the last notes of the encore – a reprise of the final movement of the Sonata in A major (Op.69) – had rung out, spirits were still soaring and neither performer looked the least bit enervated.

First mention must go to British pianist Jeremy Young (left), who had the far more notes to conquer and was every part the perfect collaborator. Often the protagonist and agent provocateur, he set the pulse of these masterpieces, which paced from arch solemnity to unbridled joie de vivre.

These sonatas come from the three stylistic periods of Beethoven’s life. The early Op.5 pair (1796) were pioneering efforts in the genre, yet imbued with the characteristic brio that typified the young impetuous composer, while later Op.102 twosome (1815) represent a more pensive, elusive and ultimately sublime side to his art. The urgent and life-affirming readings presented had much to admire in both depth of conception and digital dexterity.

The performance of the final sonata in D major (Op.102 No.2) was particularly gripping. Its abrupt and stark opening was startling in the contrasts provided, and the ensuing slow movement pondered much in its longeurs. The intricate counterpoint overcome by the duo in the finale’s tricky fugue was a tour de force, one that mirrored the mastery to be found in the contemporaneous late piano sonatas.
Final word goes to the inimitable Qin Li-Wei (left), cello professor at the Conservatory, whose voluminous and sensuous tone yielded on his 1721 Filius Andreas Guarnerius made every minute a treat. His short but vital solo entry at the outset of the middle-period Op.69 sonata was breathtaking, a fleeting but telling moment that eloquently summed up the riches to be experienced.

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