Jean-Louis Duport, cellist and composer – portrait by Remi-Fursy Descarsin
Sonata no.1 for piano and cello in F major Op.5/1 (1796, Beethoven aged 25)
Dedication Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Background and Critical Reception
Before Beethoven, the cello was an instrument with its roots in accompaniment. The first edition of Bach’s solo suites was yet to appear. Some composers, notably Vivaldi and Boccherini, brought the instrument forward in wonderful solo concertos, and wrote sonatas with harpsichord for private use. However neither Haydn nor Mozart wrote for the instrument in a singular capacity. Haydn’s piano trios assign the cello faithfully to the bass line, while the string quartets of both composers rarely elevated its profile. Notable exceptions occur in Mozart’s last three quartets, written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia.
Five years after Mozart’s death, Beethoven paid a visit to the King’s court in Berlin, where two cellist brothers were working – Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport. To honour the occasion Beethoven composed a pair of substantial sonatas published as Op.5 and explicitly stated to be ‘for piano with cello’. It is thought the younger Duport, Jean-Louis, gave the premiere of both Op.5 works, with Beethoven himself taking on the challenges of the piano part.
The composer’s aim was to unite the two instruments in the way Mozart had done through his sonatas for piano and violin, though as Steven Isserlis notes in his writing for Hyperion, Op.5 no.1 is more like a concerto for the two. In his foreword for the thoroughly engaging book Beethoven’s Cello, by Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, Isserlis describes how Beethoven was ‘rattling the cage of classicism’ with these two works.
The book proceeds with a forensic but wholly accessible look at this piece and its innovations, not to mention its instinctive and joyful writing for the instruments. ‘For the first time ever, the cello and piano, collaborating as equals, begin the conversation together, in unison’. The dotted-note style is ‘a patent reference to the royal dedicatee, the Prussian monarch’, leading to an Allegro that has ‘an abrupt about-face…a playfully buoyant piano theme’.
The Allegro is the main body of the work, and is complemented by a Rondo third movement where, as the book explains, Beethoven ‘again stretched his musical canvas’, broadening the structure of a typical Rondo (where three different ideas appear in the order ABACABA) to incorporate yet more melodic ideas.
This is one of the most original statements in Beethoven’s music so far. As he did in the Op.1 piano trios, Beethoven is using a relatively new form to broaden his means of musical expression, this time using a form completely untouched by Haydn and Mozart. Here he has the freedom to set his own rules as well as expand the previous ones.
The shock of the new runs through this piece. Beethoven appears to have been intoxicated by the freedom of writing for the cello in a solo capacity, and for such a distinguished dedicatee. He takes risks, leaving no stone unturned while exploring the relationship between the two instruments. At his disposal are many memorable tunes, worked with daring twists and turns through far ranging harmonies and textures.
You can sense the composer literally rubbing his hands as he presents both the Duport brother and himself a fiendish but ultimately surmountable set of musical posers.
The introduction of Op.5 no.1 would have raised a few eyebrows at the first performance, and still does when you consider, as Steven Isserlis noted, that ‘Beethoven was practically inventing the medium as he wrote’. The slow introduction establishes the partnership and a genial atmosphere. It is fully realised in a substantial and joyous Allegro where cello and piano trade thoughts and literally bounce off each other, bursting with enthusiasm.
Looking at the timings for the movements suggests an imbalance, with a first movement of a quarter of an hour (including the introduction) and a second movement of 7 minutes, but there is no suggestion of this at all in listening to the work. The third movement is bright and lively, with one of those tunes you end up whistling in the street after a concert, and there are more opportunities for both instrumentalists to demonstrate their skill in the king’s presence. Beethoven moves them to distant keys towards the end, playing with his audience as he anticipates the final straight.
This is wonderful music, giving its listener both then and today the fullest possible sense of discovery. Piano and cello form a true partnership, with Beethoven once again showing his ability for true innovation. This is another form transformed – with many more to come!
Recordings used and Spotify playlist
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Heinrich Schiff (cello), Till Fellner (piano) (Philips)
Miklós Perenyi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Decca)
Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (DG)
The playlist below contains a handful of recordings of this piece, from notable duos such as Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, Heinrich Schiff and Till Felner. Miklós Perenyi and András Schiff and Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff. All those listed are brilliant partnerships, compelling from first moment to last – especially Perenyi and Schiff. Yet the one I return to most often is the partnership between fortepianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis, playing the music as though it was written yesterday in an account of spontaneity and joy.
The below playlist includes all the recordings mentioned above save Isserlis and Levin – to hear clips from this you can visit the Hyperion website
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1796 Haydn – Mass in C major, Hob.XXII:9 Missa in tempore belli (‘Mass in Time of War’)
Next up Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2