Period Keyboards Recast Beethoven Works With Cello

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Cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Robert Levin perform Beethoven works. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Millot)
In  sublime mix of scholarship and performance, Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin took on Beethoven’s cello-piano repertoire.
(Isserlis photo by Jean Baptiste Millot; Levin photo by Ascherman.)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – The music of Beethoven has loomed large in the special projects presented by the Vancouver Recital Society in past seasons: all the piano sonatas with Paul Lewis in 2006; all the sonatas for piano and violin with Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust in 2012; and, over the weekend of  March 15, the complete works for piano and cello with pianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis, who will resume their recent recital tour together in the fall of 2015.

Co-sponsored by Early Music Vancouver, the event offered the opportunity to hear Levin play on keyboards from close to the Beethoven era — specifically, a copy of a Viennese fortepiano made by Johann Schantz circa 1790, and an English Broadwood made about two decades after Beethoven’s death in 1827. This was an endeavor of enormous value but considerable logistical intricacy. Fortepianos kept in recital trim are not especially thick on the ground in the humid Pacific Northwest, nor is there a large audience prepared to move outside the comfort zone of modern instrument performance.

Levin played a Christopher Barlow copy of the Schantz fortepiano.
Levin played a Christopher Barlow copy of the Schantz fortepiano similar to this one.

Yet the project turned out to be a sublime mix of scholarship and performance. The Vancouver Recital Society used the Vancouver Playhouse, a mid-century space seating 670, big but not quite too big. And from the very first notes played the first night, the virtues of the fortepiano in combination with Isserlis’s near-habitual use of gut cello strings were obvious.

The Friday program began with the Sonata in F for piano and cello, Op. 5 No. 1, flanked by the 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, and the 12 Variations onEin Mädchen oder Weibchenfrom Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. All employed the Schantz fortepiano; all were delivered with a dynamite combination of wit, charm, and flash. But it was in the F major sonata that revelations about textures and phrasing proved completely convincing. The buzz at intermission was so pro-fortepiano that many in the audience seemed ready to swear off modern instruments on the spot. (To hear the opening of the Allegro movement, click here.)

Levin turned to the Broadwood for the Op. 69 Cello Sonata (Vancouver Recital Soc.)
Levin turned to the Broadwood for the Op. 69 Cello Sonata. (Vancouver Recital Society)

After Beethoven’s own transcription of the Sonata in F for Piano and Horn, it was time to move to the heftier Broadwood for the Sonata in A, Op 69. The instrument, on loan from a local collector, was pushed to its limits. “How would you feel if you were brought out of 168 years of retirement?” warned a slightly nervous Leila Getz, artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, before the music resumed, but her concerns proved unfounded.

An integral part of the mini-festival was a Saturday afternoon lecture-demonstration, a fascinating and revealing two hours. The personalities of Isserlis and Levin, who have recorded the Beethoven cello sonatas for Hyperion to wide acclaim, made for productive contrast.  Isserlis, who is British, seemingly all quips and banter (“The only real reason for playing the cello is getting to toss your hair around”), turned deadly serious when it came to the big issues of using quality editions and the seemingly infinite questions raised by the intricate nuances of Beethoven’s markings. Levin, an American, was the all-knowing professor with the practiced classroom manner (or is it thinly disguised showmanship?) to make his wealth of information — and the opinions derived from it — seem entirely convincing. Actually, when it comes to it, there is a good deal to argue about in the decisions made by both, but the brilliance and commitment of their performances easily trumped all quibbles.

Isserlis and Levin recorded the Beethoven cello sonatas for Hyperion.
Isserlis and Levin recorded the Beethoven cello sonatas for Hyperion.

Their joint lecture revealed the central game plan for the project: Search out the best sources, consider every detail and its meaning in comprehensive pre-performance preparation, find appropriate (if not perfect) instruments, then deliver on-stage performances that feel as fresh as the days the works were penned.

An afternoon program began with Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (from Die Zauberflöte), followed by the second of the Op. 5 sonatas. The sparkling sound of the Schantz reproduction was once again the perfect complement for Isserlis, in an enchanting performance full of humour — most of it good-natured — yet tempered with lashings of elegant sentiment. Articulation and extremely rapid passage work, not to mention breathless pianissimos, were enormously effective on the Viennese instrument, and Isserlis’s range of dynamics and subtle use of vibrato informed every bar of the work.

The second half was devoted to the two Op. 102 sonatas performed on the 19th-century instrument. The Broadwood is obviously more powerful than the Viennese fortepiano, with increased ability to sustain notes but less agility and, for my ears at least, significantly less charm. Yet hearing the late sonatas on it was in every sense another telling revelation. The cliché that Beethoven was the ultimate proto-Romantic, striving for the unattainable by pushing every practical and aesthetic limit, took on a new dimension when these complex works were presented with the Broadwood. Modern instrument performances can sound tame, even pretty; here the sound was visceral and ferociously direct.

Beethoven’s stormy drama, his wild shifts in mood, the hectoring and sense of inner conflict leading to sublime ecstasy were immediate and often terrifying. Isserlis is invariably a rhapsodic player, but here his sense of abandon was like that of one possessed; Levin matched him in intensity, performing with freedom but without the modern piano’s inevitable problem of overpowering the cello. The inherent truth that all music was once contemporary was never more clearly demonstrated than by the new-to-us sounds from an old instrument. We felt the composer’s presence and were shattered by it.

This was a weekend of exploration and singular bravery that challenged and convinced in equal measure. Its obvious lessons will be remembered, but, like any successful exploration, the ultimate discovery is of a host of new questions.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.