After decades of seeing, hearing, performing and fathoming all aspects of Beethoven’s music for cello and piano, it’s the opportune time to record the lot and provide the public with two discs of artistic insight into this incredibly rich repertoire.
What a pleasure to understand immediately that these readings are clearly the collaborative meeting of the minds: the composer’s, cellist Laurence Lesser, pianist HaeSun Paik and recording wizard Adam Abeshouse. The feeling of oneness—so rare in extended projects these days—permeates the music that will bring much satisfaction to all fortunate enough to add this collection to theirs. One can also imagine Beethoven nodding in approval with the splendid result.
The three sets of variations that open the proceedings are instructive on all fronts. There is no coincidence that Handel’s theme is a study of contrasts (regal/gentle; major/minor), the first selection from The Magic Flute hinges on a deceptive cadence and the second vrai Mozart creation (the first “borrowed” from folk music) pivots on a fermata. All of these components are then fully exploited by the creative genius whose compositional powers can be heard and felt to expand with every work (and frequently every variation).
The myriad details that go into bringing the music forward ahead of the notes (e.g., weight, attack, length, harmonic plan, thematic subtext) have been beautifully worked out by the participants, frequently giving the impression that the performances flow from a single entity. The exceptionally rare misfires or shade-away-from-perfect pitches matter not a whit given the preponderance of art as the primary goal.
Paik deftly drives the opener, delivering the many technical challenges with crystal clear dexterity that paves the way for Lesser’s singing, lyrical lines (taking the “busy” lead on his own during the seventh variant which has a remarkable link to the fun of the Op. 11 Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano).
Op. 66 is infectious right off the bat as Paik’s magical touch is ideally foiled by Lesser’s ability to move to the fore with abandon (Var. 2), carry on conversations between equals and share the marvellously dark side of Papageno (Var. 10) before the musicians work their way through triplet drama (and a wonderfully effective brooding C-string) to a finish that is a model of contentment even as it disappears into the night—no doubt to allow the next song in the opera to be cued up!
As much as the variations reveal the joy of self-discovery and fascination with his emerging talent (curiously the infrequent but carefully inserted instances of pizzicati and double stops for the cello), the two sonatas which make up Opus 5 are magnificent studies in contrast. The first of these lifts off with a compelling statement of unity: touch and purpose, then allows each of proponents to make their singular marks. The ensuing “Allegro” is ideally balanced in all aspects and bursts into an incredible moment where the “Emperor’s” arrival several years later can be sensed between the lines. Who other than Beethoven can calm the movement down with a double cadenza—a pause that most assuredly refreshes—before hurtling forward into the last hurrah.
Op. 5, No. 2: After a brief “we are one” soundpost, Lesser’s considerable skills as accompanist are revealed. The duo’s extraordinary dramatic sense builds the tension with every measure, already knowing that the coming abyss of silence will—in many ways—become the most powerful note unheard.
The overwhelming despair and anguish of the “Allegro moto più tosto presto” is allowed to the surface, surrounded by sizzling triplets, meancing bass lines, octaves everywhere and a false conclusion that mightily serves to reinforce the gloomy mood. The G Major “Rondo” puts on—thankfully—a remarkably happy face (the second theme’s lyricism—beautifully drawn by Lesser—as the reconciled protagonists readily move about the tonal landscape adds much to the enjoyment). At times the excitement is palpable and the one dark cloud is handily moved off the horizon. A different knock at the door (foreshadowing the coming Symphony No. 5) brings a smile before the master’s invigorating tonic completes its work. The vast emotional spectrum continaed in just these twenty-three minutes must have thrilled its first audiences considerably, but with the likes of the opening of the second act of Fidelio to come, present-day aficionados could truly remark to those initial patrons: “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”
The longest sonata in the collection is nothing short of a miracle of proportion where anyone who fails to observe the exposition repeats ought to be charged with artistic theft. Beethoven fires on all compositional cylinders, magically balancing lead/follow, pizzicato/bow (the extremely judicious use of the former makes every instance a treasure), angst/joy, busyness/reflection, long/short, and offbeat with on.
The serene beauty and gritty drama of the “Allegro ma non tanto” thrusts Lesser into the string, pluck-finger and soul of the writing like never before. Paik responds in kind to the point where the development yields unforgettable moments of extreme heat as both performers throw caution to the wind and unflinchingly “go for it.”
The “Scherzo” follows suit: its delectable accented/syncopated romp marvellously contrasted with a Venetian trio. If such a term as “energetico” existed, it would be fully realized here.
The “Adagio cantabile” is the ideal sorbet between the intensity of what preceded and the summation of the finale, where another sort of “knock on the door” magnificently explodes during the punch and dazzle of the development. Repeated hearings are highly recommended.
From Op. 102, the concluding sonatas reveal Beethoven’s musical growth as he more shares intimate details of the ideas at hand than puts them through the traditional, classical development techniques. No. 1 comes first to the ear in quiet contemplation before a nudging pair of pizzicati signal the time to act (so akin to a Shakespearean character who is moved off the fence following a heart-wrenching soliloquy). At several points in the “Allegro vivace,” the players wrestle heroically with the dynamic and attack extremes, also showing their willingness to flirt with “ugly” rather than risk thwarting the composer’s intent. In the subsequent “Adagio,” the partners intertwine both mood and line, resolved to find resolution to the initial quandary (“Andante”) one melody at a time. After seamlessly navigating to the “Allegro vivace,” success permeates the music, albeit with a couple of second thoughts (Lesser’s open fifths are the perfect “hesitato,” giving a literal feeling of having to fine-tune the solution before it’s acceptable to all).
The “Allegro con brio” exudes power in its first bars only to be somewhat tempered by the initial comment from the cello. From there it’s a no-holds-barred skirmish to find the wherewithal to reach unanimity with the opening theme. When it does, the final cadence exudes complete self-assurance. Mere seconds later, hope is assuredly dashed in the “Adagio”; rare bits of silence reinforce the pathos. During this ultra-expressive movment, Lesser provides exquisite phrasing while Paik is once again the model of telling understatement: less is so much more. The mystery deepens until the “Allegro fugato” is launched with its deceptively simple scale-driven subject.
And so we come full circle: Even while Beethoven unlocks his talents and looks to break so many boundaries into the future (the foundation for, particularly, the late string quartets is reaily apparent), the past is acknowledged. Here, the “usual” contrapuntal form is expanded, just as the themes utilized for the opening variations of this complete set captured the emerging composer’s attention, helping to pave the way for the incredible journey of art that lay ahead.
For those craving still more from Lesser and Paik, there is a 50-minute DVD included in the package. Some live performances recorded in Kumbo Art Hall (Seoul Korea) provide a fascinating study of hands and visages. A few “Conversations and Music” permit Lesser the opportunity of adding his further thoughts and insights while the screen intercuts from Asia to the Boston “studio” sessions (Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory) and a teaching cubicle. Those using headphones may eventually tire of the audio hiss that signals the next “interruption” of the 2009 concert (where a curious fluttering occurs every so often) but that’s a small price to pay to learn more about the music and these remarkable artists. JWR