Cello Sonata in F major, op.5 no.1
Cello Sonata in G minor, op.5 no.2
Seven Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,’ WoO 46
Cello Sonata in A major, op.69
My only regret connected with this concert was that teaching rendered me unable to attend its successor the following evening, when Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov completed their survey of Beethoven’s works for cello and piano. This was splendid chamber-music-making: no particular ‘points’ being made, but simply, though in reality not at all ‘simply’, excellent communication and exploration of fine music.
The first sonata, op.5 no.1, opened in light, understated fashion, which yet told of tensions beneath the surface, this first movement introduction pregnant, as any Beethovenian introduction should be, with possibilities. Energy was pent up ready for the exposition proper, the tempo strikingly yet convincingly flexible. Sharply pointed, sharply directed, that exposition and indeed the performance as a whole were imbued with a crucial sense that every note mattered. Influences of Mozart and Haydn were certainly felt, but Beethoven’s identity remained unmistakeable. Expansiveness was relished but direction was maintained. Queyras proved both lithe and lyrical, Melnikov properly protean. The second movement was playful, with a keen sense of response between the players. A fleet tempo never moved towards being garbled, as it might have done in lesser hands. Balance was never a problem, even when Melnikov occasionally made an almighty noise. Formal roots may have lain in Haydn, but again there was no mistaking the composer.
The companion sonata, in G minor, followed. This is a key that inevitably brings Mozart to mind, and the introduction to the first movement certainly seemed haunted, though never overwhelmed, by his ghost. There was a tragic impulse, laudably never hurried, to the main body of the movement too. Major mode passages were given their due, but one heard them in the light of the tonic key. Motivic working and harmony worked in tandem to propel the sonata’s progress. The second movement offered tonal and, again, playful relief. There was grace aplenty, Queyras’s lyricism especially appreciated, but above all a sense of response to tensions previously explored. Not, of course, that that response was too readily accomplished, but accomplished it was.
The ‘Bei Männern’ Variations received a cultivated performance. Inventiveness, more in an eighteenth-century than Diabelli-like fashion, was the hallmark of work and performance, the latter detailed without being fussy. The variety of ‘voices’ Queyras extracted from his instrument was noteworthy, both in itself and for its expressive use. The sadness of the minor-mode variation, the scherzo-like quality of its successor – again, that playfulness! – and the rapt ornamentation of the sixth: all those qualities and more served both to differentiate and to dramatise.
The greater complexity of the op.69 Sonata in A major was apparent from the outset, enjoining the listener to still greater effort, the performance however an excellent guide to such effort. Simplicity of building blocks and complexity of what the composer does: such was the dialectic to be explored here. Melnikov took more of an obvious lead in the second movement, though not at Queyras’s expense. Rhythmic command proved crucial for both, the incessant quality of Beethoven’s writing unfailingly communicated. The finale opened as if the slow movement we had yet to hear. It was a surprise well concealed until the moment of telling. And even then, contrast between music of differing pulse was very much at the heart of the performance. Dynamic contrasts and transitions worked similarly. There was ultimate musical exultance, but it remained of a reflective character.