Beethoven’s five Cello Sonatas span his compositional life – two early works, two late ones, with the third composed in the same feverish year as his Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies. French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, in the first of two Wigmore Hall recitals on successive evenings, explored the first three sonatas. Despite the stormy turbulence in much of the writing, they allowed the sunlight to flood in, illuminating these wonderful scores in an absorbing recital.

Jean-Guihen Queyras © Marco Borggreve
Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

The two Op.5 cello sonatas were composed in 1796. In Berlin, Beethoven presented them to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, who was a keen amateur cellist and already the recipient of string quartets from Haydn and Mozart. These early sonatas are both in two movements, prefaced by slow introductions. Until Beethoven, the cello sonata had been for ‘piano with cello accompaniment’ and the opening phrase of the F major sonata echoes that, with the cello briefly doubling the piano line until turning away with its own introductory idea. The piano heralds the first theme, whereas in the G minor sonata it’s the cello’s turn to take the lead, Beethoven breaking free from convention.

There was plenty of ‘give and take’ in the partnership of Melnikov and Queyras, responding and reacting to each other’s playing; it was like eavesdropping on an earnest musical dialogue. Queyras favours a lean, clean cello sound and is a compact, focused player; not for him the sweeping, histrionic gestures. In the F major sonata, he offered a lyrical introduction, with sforzandos observed, but not emphatically so. Melnikov often took the musical lead, especially his almost puckish playing of the main theme, Queyras responding with the lightest articulation in his bow strokes. Playfulness was again to the fore in the Allegro vivace second movement, though there was also glorious rhapsodic playing from Queyras, who was the more forceful partner here.

Occasionally, some of the tempo and dynamic choices seemed extreme – quieter and slower than strictly necessary, Melnikov being particularly interventionist. The opening to the G minor sonata was full of brooding intensity, accompanied by a furrowed brow from Queyras; silences pregnant with expectation dragged out a little too long. However, the main cello theme was lyrically introduced, the sunshine briefly peeking through the storm clouds. Melnikov was especially fine as the tempest returned in the middle section. Both players, though, could switch from fiery passion to quicksilver lightness in the twinkling of an eye. Queyras’ ghostly playing of the scurrying arpeggiated demisemiquavers in the Rondo Allegro finale was particularly delightful, happy to cede the musical line to his partner.

The Sonata no. 3 in A major benefited from a gentler approach, its lyrical atmosphere akin to that of the Pastoral Symphony from the same period. It was dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein and was premiered in March 1809. The first movement opens with a statement by the cello alone; as if to point this up, Melnikov folded his arms in contemplation at the keyboard, allowing Queyras to commence proceedings. The cellist’s sound was richer and darker here, exploring burnt umber textures in the lower strings. Melnikov provided purposeful, insistent tempi for the minor key Scherzo, while the brief Adagio cantabile contained the tenderest playing of the evening before the skittish finale burst in.

Before the A major Sonata, we were treated to the second of Beethoven’s sets of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The theme from Pamina and Papageno’s duet “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” was voiced with simple grace and elegance, while each of the seven variations which followed was an exquisite pearl, shimmering but never showy. 

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