Beethoven Sonatas for Piano & Cello[CD]
~ Thomas Schmidt & Clay Ruede
Beethoven's five Sonatas for piano and cello offer a magnificent distillation of twenty years of his development as a composer into two hours of listening. His mastery of the conventional musical forms and structures of the time was clear from his earliest published works, and that mastery made it possible for him to subvert the listeners' expectations in ways that would create a radically new expression of emotion in music. The "original instrument" and "period performance" movements of the second half of the twentieth century gave audiences and performers alike new insight into and experience of the sound of western classical music as it might have been performed historically. Despite those developments, the solemn ritual of modern concert life has little to do with the manner in which much of this music was presented when new. Small- scale chamber works were not often presented in grand concert halls, but were meant for performance in more intimate environs. The domestic nature of these events was well described by the violinist and composer Ludwig Spohr, and music was often one of many simultaneous entertainments. Conversation, food, wine, card games and music intermingled in the social fabric, and one was free to listen attentively or not, and there could be lively comments made to the players even as they performed. It was for just such an occasion that the Opus 5 sonatas presented here were written. They were dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, a gifted amateur cellist for whom Haydn and Mozart composed string quartets with unusually prominent cello parts. These Sonatas served to introduce young Beethoven to Europe's influential musical society. Beethoven performed these works with the great French cellist Jean-Louis Duport, the solo cellist of the King's orchestra. In these two works, Beethoven establishes his mastery of the conventional forms even as he utterly defies their conventions. Most of the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart with which Beethoven's audience would be familiar were cast in three or four contrasting movements, and were typically ten to fifteen minutes in length. Both of the Opus 5 Sonatas are twice that duration, and each consists of only two movements. Even more radical is that each begins with an extensive slow introduction, a feature usually employed by Haydn and Mozart in symphonic literature to signify a particularly serious work. In these two sonatas, dramatic contrasts of volume and mood, and of sound and silence in the introductions serve the purpose of demanding that the audience pay heed. Not a bad idea for a young composer looking to make his way in the world. More importantly, that attention is richly rewarded as these works unfold. The first sonata has another unusual characteristic that Beethoven develops further in his "late" works. Nineteen minutes into the first movement, the tempo changes abruptly three times within a few seconds, first with a sudden slow echo of the introduction, followed by eighteen extremely fast measures before returning to the original tempo. In the second movement, the tempo becomes much slower for just two measures, again echoing the introduction, just seconds before it's conclusion. It is both radical and brilliant. In working on such a large canvas for his "domestic" works, Beethoven set the stage for the "heavenly lengths" of the works of later composers like Schubert and Mahler. By the time he completed the Sonata in A major, twelve years after those of Opus 5, Beethoven was at the peak of his fame. The first four symphonies, nine of the string quartets, and four of the piano concertos were before the public, and his growing deafness had yet to keep him from performing. The A major sonata is both the most widely performed of these sonatas, and is, at least on the surface, more conventional than it's predecessors. It is cast in three movements, but instead of the expected fast-slow-fast progression, it's movements proceed as fast, faster, and fast again. The opening movement has a lyricism and generosity of spirit that is reminiscent of the first "Razumovsky" quartet or the later "Archduke" trio. The middle movement, called a scherzo, is not in the form conventionally associated with that term. In place of the clearly defined scherzo-trio-scherzo one might expect, he presents two alternating contrasting themes, the first of which features a melody that begins (and remains) on the "wrong" beat, while the second is more lyrical and more gracefully comported. The last movement is in "sonata" form rather than a rondo, and begins with a slow introduction that seems almost to be the slow movement that one might have expected to hear. The two sonatas of Opus 102 came into being after the longest period of compositional inactivity of Beethoven's career. Crises in the personal, physical and professional realms had combined to affect his creative output for almost two years. When he did return to serious work as a composer, his music was transformed. These sonatas contain many of the hallmarks of Beethoven's later music: the use of counterpoint, the contrast of ethereal, almost ecstatic passages alongside more agitated ones, sudden changes of tempo, and the use of "cyclic" formal elements are all contained in these two brief works. The first of these sonatas in cast in two movements, and it is the most unconventional, the shortest, and perhaps the most profound of all the sonatas. The entire sonata is shorter than the first movements of either of the Opus 5 sonatas, yet the materials are so diverse and are so perfectly argued and presented that by it's conclusion, one has been taken on an extraordinary emotional journey. Beethoven originally labeled it a "free sonata," and it opens with a serenely lyrical introduction in C major that leads to an allegro in A minor that is by turns furious and ruminative. The second movement opens with a short Adagio that never truly settles into either C or G major before giving way to a brief return of the introduction from the first movement. Finally, the movement settles into an allegro that is equal parts ecstatic and ebullient music. The D major sonata is Beethoven's final accompanied sonata of any sort, and it is the only truly conventional work of this set. It's three movements are in the more typical fast-slow-fast arrangement, though the slow movement connects to the finale without pause. It is with the finale that Beethoven again upturns convention, as the entire movement is a fugue. A note on the performances: Over the years, Tom and I have given hundreds of performances of Beethoven's music, from the piano trios to sonatas and the Triple Concerto. That shared experience made the preparation and performance of these great works uniquely satisfying, as the years have brought us both a common feeling for issues of style and textual interpretation and an enduring and cherished friendship. Pianist Thomas Schmidt's multifaceted career has encompassed the roles of soloist, chamber musician, organist, conductor, and teacher. In 1991, Dr. Schmidt was appointed Director of Music at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City, where in addition to his duties as organist and director of choral activities, he performs a weekly organ recital and organizes the weekly Classical Concert Series. He founded the Basically Bach at Saint Peter's festival in 1993, which has become an annual addition to the city's musical life. Before his appointment to Saint Peter's, he was Professor of Piano at Concordia College in Bronxville, New York for twenty-four years. Dr. Schmidt earned his undergraduate degree in church music at Valparaiso University, and holds advanced degrees in piano performance from the University of Wisconsin and Yale. Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Ruede first worked as a sonata duo in 1975, and they continued performing together as members of the Arden Trio from 1979 to 2004. Cellist Clay Ruede has appeared as a soloist in North America and Europe and performed with ensembles as diverse as the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the contemporary music ensemble Speculum Musicae. He served as principal cellist for the Encores Orchestra and the American Theatre Orchestra in performances, broadcasts, and recordings of vintage and classic American music for 10 years. An prominent member of New York City's recording industry, Mr. Ruede has played for recording projects including the complete Caprices and Etudes for solo cello of August Franchomme and music of the composers Milton Babbitt, Philip Glass, and Stephen Sondheim. He has recorded with the singers Marilyn Horne, Thomas Hampson, Emmylou Harris, Jewel, and Billy Joel, the jazz artists Stanley Turrentine and David Liebman, and the groups Smashing Pumpkins and Blues Traveler. He can be heard as the solo cellist in Robert Altman's film, "The Company."
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