One usually thinks of Beethoven's music in terms of large tonal landscapes with violent outbursts of emotions and dramatic sweeping lines. While this is true for much of his music most of his symphonies, many of his piano sonatas and a number of his string quartets exhibit these characteristics it certainly doesn't describe the five sonatas for cello and piano.
These sonatas, which span a significant part of Beethoven's creative life, are in many ways the antithesis of what one considers to be the epitome of Beethoven's music. They are predominantly lyrical in nature they're works that eschew the dramatic in favor of more fluid, seamlessly flowing phrases and more subtlety in expression.
That's not to say the cello sonatas are devoid of dramatic tension. There is plenty of that in any one of them to satisfy anyone's palate. But overall, the sonatas are wonderfully mellifluous and captivating works.
Each of the five sonatas has something special to offer. Encompassing some 20 years from the first (written in 1796) to the last sonata (from 1815), they offer strong contrasts. The two early op. 5 sonatas, written in the final moments of the classical era, are certainly indebted to the late 18th century's principals in structure and texture, while the final, glorious pair that comprises the op. 102 set, are in content among Beethoven's most sublime works from the start of his last period.
But as wonderful as each of these sonatas is individually, one can truly appreciate them more fully when they're heard as a cycle. That's when one can hear the similarities more distinctly while also discerning their unique differences.
Salt Lake audiences were fortunate to be able to enjoy the complete cycle once again within a few years when cellist Colin Carr and pianist Thomas Sauer played them last week in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Carr and Sauer have spent this season immersing themselves in these wondrous works, performing the complete cycle in several cities across the country. That proximity to the music was clearly evident in their Salt Lake performance. They brought amazing insight into the music and a profound understanding of the intricacies of the works, dazzling and mesmerizing their audience right from the start.
Carr and Sauer divided the cycle into two separate concerts last Tuesday and Thursday, since they also included the three sets of variations Beethoven wrote for cello and piano. The variations are much lighter in character than the sonatas and offered a needed cushion between the more substantial sonatas.
Many cellists have undertaken playing the complete Beethoven sonatas in concert, but few have played it better than Carr did last week. Carr infused his playing with an earnestness that underscored the dramatic power of the op. 102, no. 2, and the op. 5, no. 2 (curiously the only one written in a minor key). And he brought passionate eloquence to his playing where needed (of particular note in that regard was the beautifully played slow introduction to the second movement of the op. 102, no. 2, which in so many ways was the highlight of the two evenings).It's absolutely no exaggeration to say that Carr and Sauer elevated chamber music to a higher level last week, and those who experienced it in person certainly have something they can cherish for a long time.
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