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“See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes”: the first line of a Chorus taken from Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” identifies the cycle of variations for cello and piano composed by Beethoven on its musical theme. However, it can also be taken (with some rhetorical emphasis) as a symbol for the role of Beethoven’s works in the history of the cello and of its repertoire.
If the “hero” is one of the iconic images in Beethoven’s artistic world (from the Eroica Symphony to the myth of Prometheus), the cello seems the perfect instrument for embodying this ideal: it possesses a gorgeous cantabile tone, which has been likened innumerable times to the human voice; it can produce a powerful and vigorous sound, symbolizing strength and energy, but it can also whisper with delicacy or sing nobly; finally, it can show its capabilities in extreme virtuoso techniques, which represent the musical equivalent of an hero’s virtue.
Yet, as happens to many “heroes”, the cello had not come to realize its full possibilities before Beethoven’s time. Of course, many masterpieces had already been composed for this instrument (from Bach’s Suites to Haydn’s Concertos, to cite only the most obvious examples), and its technique had already been explored both by composers and performers; however, it still had to “conquer” its place in the chamber music repertoire, and even within Beethoven’s own production this proved to be a gradual process.
When Beethoven first entered the arena of cello music, he was a youth in his twenties, an acclaimed virtuoso on the piano and a blossoming composer who had already attracted the attention of many. At that time, however, the cello and piano duo had still to find its distinctive voice. The cello either was a somewhat expendable accompanying tone to keyboard works, or, on the contrary, was the protagonist of pieces with continuo accompaniment. The two instruments had not yet learnt how to speak together on a plane of equality. Their combination, however, was very promising and stimulating: the range of both instruments exceeded those of most others and largely overlapped; they complemented each other perfectly, as the cello’s supremacy in the field of singing tones was counterbalanced by the greater polyphonic possibilities of the piano. Moreover, their dynamic ranges were closer to each other than happens to their modern versions, and thus it was comparatively easier to achieve a satisfactory dynamic balance.
Though all five of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas have earned pride of place among the masterpieces of cello literature, they are also very different from each other, and mirror very closely the three famous “stages” of Beethoven’s compositional activity which (perhaps simplistically) divide his lifetime into a youthful period, a mature age, and a late phase. And these three stages also reflect the evolving relationship between the two instruments, and the gradual “conquest” of a distinctive role for the cello and of a peculiar voice for the duo.
The first two Sonatas (op. 5, in F major and G minor) were written by a twenty-five years old Beethoven in 1796, during a concert tour in which the young pianist performed, among others, for King Friedrich II of Prussia, who loved to play the cello himself. At his court, Beethoven met two siblings, the French cellists Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport, both of whom would leave an indelible mark in the instrument’s history and in the development of its technique, as well as on its repertoire. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Beethoven saw in the Berlin court the ideal context for proposing “experimental” cello works; their piano part, however, had to be fashioned in such a way that the young virtuoso pianist could show his mastery and talent in turn. Thus, as cellist Steven Isserlis put it, “there is no question as to which instrument gets the lion’s share of virtuosity here. Beethoven was not going to let himself be overshadowed by a mere cellist!”.
Both Sonatas are in two movements, the first of which is divided, in turn, into a slow introduction and a brilliant Allegro. This structure, which subtly hints to the form of the “French Overture”, may have been intended as a homage both to the French cellists, and (more importantly) to the King of Prussia: the dotted rhythm typical of the slow section had in fact been associated, for more than a century, to the idea of kingship and majesty. (For this same reason, indeed, it is possible that Beethoven selected Handel’s theme cited above for the set of variations he wrote during his stay in Berlin, since that Chorus had in turn become a symbol for royalty). In the first Sonata, the opening Adagio is a vibrant piece, rich in moods and feelings; the following Allegro is a proud display of virtuosity, animated by a lively rhythmic idea and by the cello’s pizzicato. A very short Adagio ensues, whose minimal duration is so filled with pathos and expression that it is transformed into the Sonata’s true climax. The Sonata closes on a sparkling and brilliant Coda.
Though similar in structure, the Second Sonata is very different in style from its twin composition, with a soberer form and a greater unity in its emotional content. Here too a veiled homage to Handel may be discerned, in the elegance of the opening Adagio, which paves the way for the masterly quick movement which follows. Here Beethoven gathers a wealth of musical ideas, employing an extremely wide emotional compass, with passionate and lyrical moments which alternate with tender, idyllic themes. The concluding Rondo is enlivened by a Protean and yet dreamy dance rhythm, which seems to anticipate Schubert’s poetic world; the harmonies are refined and smooth at the same time, and the piece is an exquisite example of concentrated and expressive focus.
During his stay in Berlin, Beethoven composed two of his three Variation cycles for cello and piano: a set of twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” (op. 66), and the “Judas Maccabaeus” Variations (WoO 45). Neither cycle reaches the heights of expression and experimentalism found in the two coeval Sonatas; however, their composition was an extraordinary opportunity for Beethoven to further explore the interaction between the two instruments, their technical possibilities and challenges, and the ways through which balance and contrast could be achieved. And even though the Variations may be less developed than the Sonatas, they are nonetheless well above the average of similar compositions of their time; moreover, both Handel’s anthem and Mozart’s delightful tune allow Beethoven to compose refreshingly joyful pieces, whose spontaneity and liveliness make them unforgettable in their genre.
Four years later (1801), Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” was performed at the “Theater an der Wien”. This time, it was another of the opera’s memorable tunes which elicited Beethoven’s creativity: in this case, the exquisite melody of “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” (WoO 46). Whereas the other piece from the “Zauberflöte” was an aria sung by Papageno, the comical hero, and it was a blend of the magical and of the comical, in this case Papageno sings a “love” duet with Pamina, the heroin of the plot. It is a “love” duet since it speaks of love, and since it beautifully expresses the sweetness of this powerful emotion, though, of course, Papageno and Pamina are not in love with each other. However, this odd couple is somewhat similar to the pairing of piano and cello: two instruments with contrasting personalities, but whose voices may sing enchantingly together.
The perfection of this instrumental duet is reached by Beethoven in his A-major Sonata op. 69, a justly famous masterpiece written mostly in 1807. Beethoven had just finished writing a great Mass (op. 86) and was in the middle of one of his most creative periods, during which pieces such as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies saw the light. The Sonata was premiered in 1809 by the cellist Nikolaus Kraft, while Baroness Dorothea Ertmann played the piano – Beethoven was no longer able to do so in public, as his deafness was by then very pronounced. In spite of this, the entire Sonata seems to flow from the Olympian serenity of its opening theme, memorably played by the cello alone. The occasional moments of tension are mostly found in the Scherzo, which follows, rather unconventionally, the magnificent first movement with its chivalric élan and its passages of enchanted tenderness. The Scherzo is the formidable invention of a genius of the rhythm: paradoxically, it is precisely by virtue of its lopsided accents and confusing pulse that it achieves an unequalled rhythmical vigour. The slow movements, an Adagio cantabile, is very concise but intensely expressive, whereas the concluding Allegro vivace finds once more the radiant brightness of the opening movement. Along with the artistic value of this piece, it also represents a milestone both for the technique of the individual instruments and for their blending: their dialogue is a dialogue of peers, though each maintains its distinct personality, and the cello’s range is explored to the very limits permitted by the performing technique of the time.
One of the daring explorers of this technique was certainly Joseph Linke, a member of the celebrated Razumovsky Quartet (“the finest in Europe”, as it aimed to be and probably was), for whom Beethoven composed his two last Cello Sonatas in 1815. Though much shorter than their forebears, both Sonatas op. 102 are magnificent examples of the otherworldly style of the late Beethoven. The first of them, in C major, germinates from an extremely simple opening musical gesture: these mere two bars are developed in a masterly fashion by the composer, who derives most of the compositional elements from this plain statement, and therefore achieves an impressive unity and consistency. This Sonata is marked by a series of slow tempi (Andante and Adagio), which are thematically related to each other, and which divide the two quick movements (both Allegro vivace and both in the sonata-form) where briskness and energy are abundantly present. Particularly in the last movement, the complex polyphonic structures which characterize Beethoven’s late style arise frequently: if the personality of Handel could be discerned behind many of Beethoven’s earlier cello works, here Bach is the acknowledged source of inspiration for a style which still remains quintessentially Beethovenian.
Beethoven’s increasing interest in contrapuntal forms is even more evident in the Allegro fugato which concludes his fifth Sonata (D major, op. 102 n. 2). Its peculiar form and its unconventional character baffled its first listeners; even Beethoven’s staunchest admirers confessed their puzzlement and perplexity. It is precisely by its defiance of the traditional (and Classical) concept of “beauty” in favour of the “sublime” that this piece achieves its greatness, which is fittingly prepared by the touching and spiritual second movement. Indeed, even though Beethoven had explored the singing quality of the cello’s tone as possibly nobody before him had done, this is the first and only great “slow movement” in the full meaning of the term within the corpus of his Sonatas. Its chorale-like quality puts it on a par with other marvellous “instrumental prayers” by the late Beethoven (such as that found in Quartet op. 132) and constitutes a powerful contrast with the angular and fragmented pace, with the deliberately rough gestures of the first movement.
Though the individual cello works by Beethoven have been performed countless times and are a fundamental component of every cellist’s repertoire, the opportunity to perform and record, and therefore to hear, the entire corpus in a single duo’s interpretive idea gives an extraordinary insight into the development of Beethoven’s creative concept. The elements of continuity are clearly shown, and the first intuition, development and ripening of the novelties are similarly put into relief; at the same time, the performers themselves are enabled to express the full range of their emotional palette, of their technique, and of their spiritual understanding of these cornerstones in the chamber music repertoire.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
MATILDA COLLIARD: Born in 1987 into a musicians family, Matilda began studying cello at the age of 4. She graduated under the guidance of Maestro Alberto Drufuca at Novara Conservatory with highest honors. She followed master classes with Enrico Bronzi, Giovanni Gnocchi, Marianne Chen, Rafael Rosenfeld and Macha Yanouchevsky. Winner of many chamber music competitions, she specialized in the repertoire for cello and piano with Maestro Pier Narciso Masi at the International Piano Academy of Imola and later at the Academy of Music in Fusignano. She did a specialization in baroque cello with M. Gaetano Nasillo. From 2013 she started a new collaboration as duo cello and piano with Stefano Ligoratti. She founded, together with Stefano Ligoratti and Eugenio Francesco Chiaravalloti, the Musical Association "Colpi d'arte" in Milan with the aim is to promote music and culture. In 2016 she founded Trio Carducci. They have videorecorded the Trio élégiaque n.1 by Rachmaninov and they are completing the recording of Seasons by Tchaikovsky (transcription for piano trio by Goedike). In February 2017, with Trio Carducci has won 2nd prize at Grand Prize Virtuoso Competition and they have debut at Royal Albert Hall - Elgar Room in London. In 2018 they had a concert at the prestigious Saint Martin in the fields in London. In june they did a China tour. In december 2018, with Trio Carducci, she released a cd dedicated to A. Arensky for Brilliant Classics. In 2019 she founded Trio Zandonai with Lorenzo Tranquillini (Violin) and Francesco Maria Moncher (Piano). From september 2017 she's cello Teacher of Rudolf Steiner School in Milan.
Ligoratti, Stefano (Pianist) studied at the “G. Verdi” Conservatory of Milan. His Academic course was characterized by a certain musical versatility that led him to obtain many degrees. He graduated in Piano, Organ, Harpsichord, Orchestral Conducting and Composition. He won several prizes in national and international competitions, including the prestigious European Piano Competition “Mario Fiorentini” of La Spezia (Italy, January 2010), where he won the first prize, the audience award and the prize for the youngest pianist. In 2005 he founded “ClassicaViva Orchestra” with which he often performs both as a soloist and a Conductor. As a pianist he has recorded CDs for the labels: “ClassicaViva” (“Variations … and beyond”, published in 2007; “Fantasies”, published in 2009; in duo with the violinist Yulia Berinskaya: “Violin in Blue” published in 2010 and “Violin in White” published in 2012); “Limen” (the CD/DVD “Sturm und Drang”, that will be soon released).
Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.