Beethoven: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 5, No. 1; Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 5, No. 2; Variations on themes from Judas Maccabaeus; Variations on themes from The Magic Flute

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 5, No. 1; Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 5, No. 2; Variations on themes from Judas Maccabaeus; Variations on themes from The Magic Flute
PERFORMER: Csaba Onczay (cello); Jeno Jando (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550479 DDD
In 1796 Beethoven embarked on a concert tour that took him to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. It was in the last city that he wrote his Op. 5 sonatas and first performed them, with the court cellist Jean Pierre Duport, in the presence of King Frederic Wilhelm II, who rewarded the composer with a gold snuffbox filled with louis d’ors.

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Though among his earliest works, the sonatas show Beethoven already beginning to reshape the course of music history. Pieces for cello and piano had been written previously, but in nearly every instance the cello was given a subsidiary part that harked back to its role in Baroque continuo accompaniment. Beethoven was the first to establish the cello as an equal partner in this form of chamber music.

These pieces have been well served on CD. There’s a fine period-instrument disc by Anthony Pleeth and Melvyn Tan on Hyperion, while the classic modern version is by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter on Philips. Onczay and Jando don’t match the brilliant – and remorseless -intensity of the latter pair, but they do perform with an authority that makes their more genial approach just as captivating. From the expansive Adagio openings through the bustling Allegros to the brisk Rondos, the Naxos duo weave an enchanting spell that reveals a more relaxed and smiling Beethoven than perhaps we’re accustomed to. But they don’t shirk from full-blooded passion when the music requires it.

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The last 30 minutes of the disc comprise the Handel and Mozart variations. Two sets are from 1796 and the third, on the Magic Flute duet, is from 1801. The Handel set has an appropriately ceremonial formality, while the Mozart pair by contrast are sprightly and rather more light-hearted. Minor works, but nevertheless enjoyable. Graham Lock