I do like the way cycles can tell a story. As musical diaries, Beethoven's cycles are particularly enlightening, especially the ones that span all three of his creative periods. But how often do you get to hear a complete Beethoven cycle in one concert? Normally a series would be required to do this, so it was a rare treat to have Nicolas Altstaedt and Alexander Lonquich deciding to perform all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas in one sitting.

Nicolas Altstaedt © Marco Borggreve
Nicolas Altstaedt
© Marco Borggreve

There's a neat symmetry to this particular cycle: two pairs of sonatas, one from the composer’s early period and one from his late, separated by a sonata from his middle period. The cello sonata was actually a tricky format for a while, with surprisingly few pieces written by major composers. Following a smattering of Baroque works, at a time when the cello's role was primarily to act as continuo and the few cello sonatas written were essentially sonatas for piano with cello accompaniment, it was Beethoven who really kick-started the genre, followed years later by Brahms, and then it was down to the 20th century to experiment further.

Altstaedt carried off this survey of Beethoven’s sonatas with good, honest integrity, no exuberant gestures and an intense and thoughtful demeanour. The two Op.5 sonatas are each structured as two fast movements preceded by a slow introduction, but with no traditional slow movement. Altstaedt’s feathery touches and hushed wisps that opened the concert were delicately placed and continued throughout these two pieces, with deftness in the upper registers alternating with forceful pounding of both cello and piano in the lower, and both finales taken at a healthy brisk pace with authority and plenty of rippling fluidity. 

The Cello Sonata no. 3 in A major, Op.69 is typical of Beethoven's turbulent middle period, rich in thematic material and with more variety of mood and style. Altstaedt and Lonquich provided a commanding performance. Altstaedt’s lyrical sweetness of tone in upper registers really came to the fore, and there was much more raw emotion expressed, with satisfyingly rough grinding in the cello, crisp and heavily accented syncopations in the Scherzo and mischievous, sometimes demonic, interplay.

The fourth and fifth sonatas making up the Op.102 pairing heralded the beginning of Beethoven’s late period. Altstaedt and Lonquich were more searching in these pieces. Yes, the drama was still there, but there was more intensity, and the mood changes veered towards the enquiring and the transcendental. Altstaedt’s bow flashed across the strings, jagged then husky, and his careful use of contrasting techniques produced a variety of timbres – bowing near the bridge, light dusting over the fingerboard and the use of non-vibrato. Lonquich supported forcefully and with intent, and produced some fine moments of calm and delicacy. In the D major sonata, there was finally a proper full-scale slow movement, and one of the most beautiful in the repertoire, which Altstaedt and Lonquich treated as the emotional centre of the cycle. The dialogue between them was sensitive and expressive, maintaining an intensity that reached through to the ghostly harmonic shifts leading into the Allegro fugato, with its rhythmic ambiguities bringing out effortless and tidy articulation from both players.

What impressed me most in all the sonatas was the subtlety and care of the phrasing from both players, feeding off each other’s energy and producing plenty of air and space and just the right amount of hold to sustain tension and poise. It gave the cycle a feeling of cohesion and genuine dialogue – inquisitive, frisky, turbulent and serene. There were moments in the first sonata when the piano overpowered the cello a little too readily in the lower registers, but this evened out over time, with a wonderful balance created and each player taking their turn to bring key phrases to the surface. This was a most rewarding and accomplished examination of Beethoven’s musical development through the eyes of the cello.