Within the space of a mere couple of CDs, it is possible to encapsulate works which are not only among the most beautiful ever written for the cello and piano duo, but also represent the very birth of the genre we call the sonata for cello and piano in the classic meaning of the term. Beethoven’s output for the two instruments comprises some absolute masterpieces and other works which maybe cannot claim the same status, but still are among the favourites of performers and audiences alike.
There are virtually no examples of true sonatas for cello and piano predating those by Beethoven. Haydn, who wrote two magnificent concertos for cello, never ventured into this genre, and earlier examples (such as Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba) are commonly played on the cello but were not conceived specifically for it. Beethoven’s revolutionary idea was not only that of creating this practically new genre, but also of putting the two instruments on an equal footing, thus establishing the foundations for a dialogue between the piano and the cello.
His first cello sonatas date back to his youthful years, when, full of ambition, excitement and good hopes, he began his life in Vienna, the capital city of music in his time, as it is today. In spite of this, the two Sonatas op 5 are the fruit of the young virtuoso’s visit to Berlin, after other great cities such as Prague, Dresden and Leipzig. These two sonatas have a famous dedicatee, Friedrich Wilhelm II, but are also deeply bound to the figure of Jean-Louis Duport, who premiered the works with Beethoven himself, if we are to trust the testimony of Beethoven’s pupil, Ferdinand Ries. Their performance must have been unforgettable: Duport, just as his brother Jean-Pierre, was one of the greatest virtuosi of the time (and Jean-Louis would also author an important treatise on cello playing). Beethoven, in turn, still unhindered by hearing loss, was an astonishing player, and enthused his audiences regularly. The mellow tone of Duport’s cello was admired by Voltaire, who is reported to have said: “Sir, you will make me believe in miracles, for I see that you can turn an ox into a nightingale!” The encounter between Beethoven and Duport must have been promoted and fostered by the King himself, who was an amateur cellist and proudly supported the Duport brothers, his recent employees.
Curiously, Beethoven also tried a performance of the op. 5 Sonatas with a double bassist, the legendary Italian performer Dragonetti, who managed to astonish the composer with his capability to play even the lightest bravura passages with a nonchalance not often associated with his instrument.
However, Beethoven’s early sonatas are tailored to the cello and its playing technique, which Duport must have demonstrated in its finest details to the composer.
These two sonatas both open with a slow introduction, which cannot be properly defined as a “movement” in itself, and are then followed by the allegros typical of a sonata. This somewhat unusual structure may suggest a reminiscence of the sonata da chiesa, the Baroque genre which constantly alternates between slow and quick movements. In both cases, Beethoven is careful to avoid tonal monotony, and eschews this risk by reaching the main key somewhat tangentially at the beginning of the last movements. These sonatas perfectly embody the young composer’s enthusiasm and determination, perhaps with the aim in mind of letting himself and his talent be known by potential employers.
Complementing these youthful sonatas, we find the G-major Variations on Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. This kind of work generally had a limited market, strictly bound to the musically educated elites who went to “Baroque” concerts and were interested in playing the most famous arias at home. This was particularly true of Handel’s Oratorio, which received its Vienna premiere in 1794 thanks to the good offices of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who had also initiated Mozart to the masterpieces of the Baroque era. In the following season, 1795-6, Handel’s Oratorio was also offered at the Berlin Singakademie, and it is likely that both performances left a significant mark on the listeners.
Beethoven wrote other cycles of variations a little later; in particular, what we now know as his op. 66, the Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, were advertised only in 1798. In spite of the extreme popularity of Mozart’s theme, Beethoven took some liberties with it, and the Variations depart rather dramatically from the model, predating many of Beethoven’s later interesting choices as a composer.
Another set of variations was composed by Beethoven after another beloved melody from Mozart’s Zauberflöte; if the tune of Ein Mädchen comes from an earlier tradition, and was just adapted by Mozart, that of Bein Männern, welche Liebe fühlen is pure Mozart, and among the most exquisite melodies to have sprung from the Salzburg composer’s pen. Even though in Mozart’s opera the love duet is sung by two characters who are not in love with each other (but each with another person: Pamina with Tamino, Papageno with Papagena), appropriately Beethoven sets the theme to a “duet” for piano and cello, the instruments interacting throughout the cycle as two musical lovers.
A few years after these variations (which were written in 1801), Beethoven composed his magnificent Cello Sonata op. 69 (1806-8). It dates from the same period as the Fifth Symphony, whose tragic atmosphere reveals clearly the anguish of the deafness the composer began to experience. And the manuscript of op. 69 bears an eloquent Latin motto: Inter lacrymas et luctus (Amid tears and sorrows). In spite of this, however, no trace of such sorrows is found in the work, which radiates an otherworldly serenity and joy. The full equality of the two instruments, and a perfect mastery of musical form are among the features which established this work as Beethoven’s most beloved sonata for cello, and one of the most played works in the cello repertoire. Dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur cellist, this work was premiered by Joseph Linke, who played cello in the Razumowsky Quartet, and by Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s piano and composition student and one of his most faithful friends.
Among the most unforgettable moments of this masterpiece is its very beginning: an enchanting melody played by the cello alone, which creates an almost mystical atmosphere from which the entire sonata seems to be born.
Beethoven returned one last time to the cello and piano duo, in 1815, when he wrote the pair of Sonatas op. 102, in C and D major. They originated from Beethoven’s visit to Countess Anna Maria Erdödy, who played the piano at a professional level, and to whom the sonatas would be dedicated. The personality of Linke comes once more to the fore as concerns these sonatas: on New Year’s Eve 1814, when the Razumowsky Palace was destroyed by a terrible fire, the Prince’s estate suffered highly. The resident quartet, of which Linke was a member, could perform no more, and the musicians had to seek alternative employment. Linke eventually found a place as the musical tutor of the Erdödy family. He would premiere these sonatas too, in 1816, again in the company of Carl Czerny.
In these sonatas, Beethoven displays the long journey he made in the company of the cello. If op. 5 was the first fruit in the mind of a genius, and op. 69 shows us the artist’s full maturity, here we have a gaze into the future, and a perspective which goes far beyond what was expected by Beethoven’s contemporaries. The complexity of these sonatas is such that, unusually for the time, they were printed in score, so as to allow the pianist to encompass the richness of musical events happening in the pieces.
Form is broken while remaining clearly discernible: at first, Beethoven had the intention of entitling the first op. 102 sonata “Free Sonata”, thus demonstrating his newly attained independence from the dogmas of the form. In Alfred Brendel’s words, these sonatas mark “the beginning of a new style so diverse as to elude definition”.
A typical trait of Beethoven’s late period and late style is a very complex treatment of polyphony and counterpoint, and this is clearly found in these sonatas (particularly in the last movement of op. 102 no. 2).
On the other hand, Beethoven seeks—here and elsewhere in his late works—to pursue an extreme economy of means; to avoid, in other words, all unnecessary elements. There is a remarkable concision, which makes these sonatas something akin to the distillation of music: the same happens with some late piano sonatas, and in particular in the very last Sonata movement he composed for the piano, the Arietta from op. 111.
In spite of this, moments of humour, joy, and irony are far from missing from these works: the newly found peace of mind, and reconciliation with his complex history, are articulated musically through works where mysticism and liveliness coexist happily, and the full palette of human feelings and sentiments finds a musical articulation.
It is as if Beethoven’s output for cello and piano would embody the full range of his own human story and that of human emotions and affections in general. The cello, with its almost human voice, and the piano, Beethoven’s own instrument, constitute a formidable partnership which allowed Beethoven to express the beauty, depth, intensity, and complexity of his human experience through the medium of music.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Maria Canyigueral, piano
Maria Canyigueral has been described by La Vanguardia as “a pianist of great personality”. One of the leading lights among the new generation of Spanish pianists, Maria Canyigueral has collaborated with outstanding contemporary Spanish composers such as Antón García Abril, Jordi Cervelló, Benet Casablancas and Joan Magrané, among others.
Maria has recently performed at Wigmore Hall in London, Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Schubertíada Vilabertran, Fundación Juan March in Madrid, Auditori Barcelona and the Ljubljana Festival.
She has performed in Belgium, France, Spain, Slovenia, Japan, and the UK.
In addition to her live performances, Maria has made an impact with her recordings. Her solo album “Avant-guarding Mompou” for Audite (2020) has received praise from magazines such as International Piano, Pizzicato Magazine, Revista Musical Catalana, and Melómano Magazine. It features the complete Cançons i Danses by Mompou and commissions from Nicolas Bacri, Moritz Eggert, Joseph Phibbs, Antón García Abril, Konstantia Gourzi, Jiri Gemrot, Josep Maria Guix, Joan Magrané, and Víctor Estapé. The project was world premiered at Conway Hall in 2018 and awarded by the Arts Council in the UK, as well as supported by Fundació Mompou, Instituto Cervantes, and Institut Ramon Llull.
She also recorded for Hedone Records in 2017 and 2021, the first project featuring works for flute and piano by Martinu, Bohm, Fauré, and Poulenc, alongside flautist Boris Bizjak, and the second being a recent live recording of a solo recital at Palau de la Música Catalana performing Bach, Beethoven, Montsalvatge, and Haydn.
Alongside violinist Lana Trotovsek, Maria has recorded works by Enric Granados, César Franck, Gerald Finzi, and M.L. Skerjanc for Hedone Records (2016), for which they received a gold medal at the Global Music Awards in California in 2017.
They also recorded and performed all violin and piano Sonatas by Beethoven in three consecutive days at the Ljubljana Festival (Slovenian Radio and TV label ZKP, 2021).
Maria has been appointed artistic director at a new chamber music series in Barcelona in Sarrià Theatre since March 2021.
Ramon Bassal, cello
Born in Barcelona, 1988, Ramon started playing cello and piano from an early age. He studied with his father Josep Bassal, and learned piano at the Marshall Academy in Barcelona, where he had the opportunity to receive master classes from Alicia de Larrocha.
He has studied at the Hochschule für Musik Basel, Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Metropolitan Academy of Lisbon with professors Thomas Demenga, Quirine Viersen, Petr Skalka, Mick Stirling, and Paulo Gaio Lima.
He has participated in courses and master classes with cellists Anner Bylsma, Antonio Meneses, Gary Hoffman, Alban Gerhardt, Gaetano Nasillo, Christophe Coin, Marcio Carneiro, Pieter Wispelwey, and Torleif Thedeen.
In 2006 he won both the cello and piano competitions at the Isaac Albéniz Conservatory of Girona. In 2010 he won the competition of the "Festival de violoncelle de Beauvais" to play as soloist with orchestra in the master class given by Pieter Wispelwey.
Ramon Bassal has performed at festivals and concert halls such as the Palau de la Música in Barcelona, the Seoripul Festival in South Korea, the "Guimaraes European Capital of Culture", the Auditori de Girona, and the Teatro de la Filarmónica in Oviedo, among many others. He has played in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
He has toured Spain performing Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major with the Sebastian Strings Orchestra, as well as with the Camera Musicae orchestra at the Altafulla Festival in Tarragona.
Ramon has also performed Robert Schumann’s cello concerto in the Auditori de Girona with the Athenea orchestra, concerts by baroque composers with the Barocco Sempre Giovanne orchestra in the church of Santa Maria del Mar and the Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, and F. Gulda’s concerto in the Auditori de La Mercé in Girona, with members of the Isaac Albéniz Conservatory of Girona.
Ramon plays an Italian cello by Giuseppe & Antonio Gagliano with an A. Lamy bow that belonged to Gaspar Cassadó.
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.