Cello Sonatas Nos 1-5
Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano)
Pentatone PTC 5186 884 110:32 mins (2 discs)
Inon Barnatan neatly sums up the pleasure of these works by pointing out that they reflect the whole span of Beethoven’s musical life, redefining the relationship between piano and cello as they go along. Quite so: the initial challenge of this artform – which Beethoven invented – lay in the fact that the powerful singing voice in the cello’s middle register tended to overwhelm the soft tone and limited sustaining power of the late-18th-century piano. It’s ironic that piano technology has now tipped the balance the other way.
Alisa Weilerstein’s sound has a generous warmth, and Barnatan’s has a delicate malleability, so these players complement each other nicely. They announce themselves with measured gravity in the first movement of the F major work, and give plenty of bite, plus a beefy sound, to the Allegro. Their noble account of the Adagio of the G minor Sonata adumbrates the great slow movements of Beethoven’s maturity.
With its rapidly alternating Scherzos and Trios, the A major Sonata presents a particular test which these performers don’t fully pass. The Scherzo’s theme is aggressively syncopated, and the pianist is expected to change fingers on the tied notes: as Misha Donat has pointed out, this reflects the composer’s desire for the vibrato which could have been obtained on the clavichord. When this technique works well – as in the recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner (on the now defunct Philips label) – the result is a thrilling tension which is not found on this new recording. The miking here is also a bit too close for fortissimo sections, but otherwise the rest of this double album is successful, with the seemingly anarchic final sonata emerging in all its rugged intricacy.