INKPOT#80 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN Cello Sonatas. Wispelwey/Komen (Channel)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)Sonatas for Pianoforte and Cello

Pieter Wispelwey cello (Baran Norman, 1710)
Paul Komen pianoforte (Broadwood, 1823)

2 discs [54:25+64:45] full-price

by Derek Lim

Beethoven‘s Cello Sonatas, though only five in number, have a larger variety than that of the Violin Sonatas, stretching from op.5 to op.102, and thus are more representative as a whole, than the violin counterparts. They need great artistry and outstanding commitment.

Left: portrait of Beethoven,
by Prof. Carl Jger (date unknown)

Let me say then, from the outset that I find a lot of the above two qualities in the artists in some of the performances on these discs. One more thing may be of at least passing interest: the piano which Paul Komen plays on is a Broadwood grand piano dating from 1823 that is exactly the same model as that sent by John Broadwood to Beethoven in 1818 as a gift. The great composer took this as a great honour.

It has a beautiful tone quite different from the Steinways so popular nowadays, and is indeed quite unique in timbre. In the high notes the instrument is crystalline (it doesn’t quite project so much here, though). It does have warmth and colour in great quantities, but at the same time a certain attractive brittleness to the sound. In his notes, Paul Komen writes that it was a treat to perform on this piano. Listening to it, I believe so. It was quite a pleasure listening to this piano, for a change from all those Steinways.

What is there to say about the interpretations? I have not heard Komen in any repertoire at all, but in this disc he seems a sensitive artist, with an attention to dynamics (take for example the beginning of the Scherzo of the A-major Sonata where Komen actually plays the ff right after the p, as written.

He has a touch which I may categorise as medium-light, not lumbering (try Barenboim with du PrĂ© (EMI CMS7 63015-2, mid-price) for example, though he’s much better now, with Vengerov in the Brahms Violin Sonata No.3 reviewed here), and is mostly a satisfying accompanist, though he tends sometimes to follow his partner’s phrasing too closely. Also, sometimes, I wished for a greater amount of that grandness of performance that Kovacevich, for example, had in great quantity (I’m thinking of the great theme introduced by the piano in the first movement of the A major.) A little too self-effacing, I thought, sometimes. Also as a note, it’s my impression that he seems to sometimes rush his left-hand accompanying semiquavers.

Pieter Wispelwey Wispelwey himself is a stylist here, opting for limited vibrato most of the time. I would have liked a certain degree more, personally. His performance is generally clean, choosing fingerings which would require as little shifting one finger from note-to-note as possible. Intonation is spot-on, and Wispelwey has moments of inventive phrasing. However I find a little frission of excitement missing from these performances. Tempi in the fast movements, though sometimes faster than elsewhere, don’t have that edge of tumult that other performances afford, namely risk-taking. Playing Beethoven sometimes means having fun, and I sometimes found these performances somewhat humourless, somewhat strait-laced and un-un-buttoned.

Neither is there that occasional note-pointing from both the cello and piano that, for example Jacqueline du Pr’s account with Stephen Kovacevich (EMI CDM7 69179-2, mid-price; Nos. 3 & 5 only) had, and sometimes there is a seeming lack of total sight of the movement; that unfailing flow of logic that makes Beethoven so satisfying. And then there are interpretative decisions made, for example, in the Allegro ma non tanto (which by the way, Wispelwey describes as a horn in the great wide open, but where I feel that again, Du Pr’s account with Kovacevich actually captures much better). Here Wispelwey and Komen both indulge in a bit of Romantic tempo rubato, which on first hearing seems like an interesting idea but on repeated listening, one wishes for just the notes as they were written.

The duo fare best in the first two sonatas, where the most interesting ideas are to be found. The Third Sonata sounds distinctly wrong-footed to me from the outset, and I can’t say I can find much enthusiasm here, despite some pleasing ideas here and there. The late-period Fourth and Fifth fare much better, however, as a whole I can’t say that these collective performances would be anyone’s first choice. One would have to contend with the obvious first choice of Fournier and Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon 423 297-2), among others, even at this price.

These performances were recorded in 1991, and I’m sure Wispelwey’s playing and Komen’s playing have improved significantly since then. Is there a possibility that they might record these together again, in a few years time, and this time couple the Sonatas with the variations?

524: 22.6.1999 Derek Lim

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