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Recital Media Review Print

Beethoven's Complete Music for Piano and 'Cello Obbligato

August 16, 2019 - Easthampton, MA:

Beethoven Complete Works for Cello and Piano (5 sonatas [Opp. 5, 1&2 (1797), 69 (1807-8), & 102, 1&2 (1815)] & 3 sets of Variations [Opp. 66, & WoO 45 & 46 (1796-1801)]), Nancy Green, 'cello, & Frederick Moyer, piano. (Full disclosure: they're cousins, and sometimes perform/record under the name "Green/Moyer Duo.") JRI Recordings, © 2019, TT 148:59 (77:15 + 71:44), $22.00. Available from JRI and as a download.

In spite of the care which R. Larry Todd,* Professor of Music at Duke University in Durham, NC, takes in pointing out, p. [6], in his superb accompanying essay entitled "Beethoven's Cello Music Reconsidered," that Beethoven titled these works, as I have in my title of this review, and as he also did for his 10 sonatas for piano and violin, the producers of the recording inverted the instruments, reverting to the works' common erroneous designation as "cello sonatas." We seem to insist on calling spades something else!

There are other omissions in the "CDBook," a planet-friendly format that uses close to 100% recycled material, far superior to the standard everything-but-precious non-recyclable-plastic "Jewel Case": Nowhere is there any information about the instruments used, the recording venue, the total times of the CDs (or set), for example. In the present days of period instrument use and historically informed performance practices, I always look first for the identity of the instruments! Even if it's a 2019 Steinway D piano, I want to know; I prefer to see its serial number, too. I don't like concealment or disguise! The pages of the essay lack numbers (hence the '[]' around it in the above citation; they indicate what a writer had to add in because it is missing in the original document, and in this case figure out first, as with the total timings), so it's difficult to cite correctly (complicating things for the writer and the reader!), which is inconsiderate for the performances of the musicians and careful and fine work a scholar produces. In this era of elusive accuracy and reliable factual information, these things are important, so I'm putting them in my review: accurate facts generate confidence in the contents of the text and its writer.

The musicians' kinship likely enhances rather than detracts from their communicative skills, and their 40+ years performing together has honed them; they, like the essay, are superb, individually and in their impeccable ensemble. I have heard the sonatas performed live several times, some in complete traversals, on both period and modern instruments, as I assume is the case here, and own other recordings of the complete works in both formats, all by internationally known musicians. The differences between the two stand out more dramatically for the keyboard instruments than for the string ones, which have evolved, of course, especially their set-ups (e.g., metal instead of gut strings), but are less drastically different. Because of their lighter actions and shorter depth of descent of the keys, some figurations, like arpeggios and runs, are easier to execute, and therefore desired tempos easier to achieve, on period than on modern instruments. Moyer appears to understand this, have the correct touch, and he doesn't overdo the pedaling. Neither does Green overdo the vibrato. Both excesses can be tempting to musicians trained in the Romantic repertoire when they are playing works of the late Classical/early Romantic period, in which the sonatas were written.

I listened to two sets made by Anner Bylsma (d. 25 July), who plays a c. 1690 Matteo Gofriller (Venice) that I like especially; See my review of Bach's Suites for 'cello about this instrument), the 1st with Malcolm Bilson, playing a 1977 replica by Philip Belt of an Anton Walter (n.d. or current location) owned by Mozart for Op. 5, 1&2 (Nonesuch 979152), and an 1825 Conrad Graf, restored by Edwin Beunk & John Wenink (n.d., Amsterdam), for Opp. 69 & 102, 1&2 (Nonesuch 979236); these are now out of print; and with Jos van Immerseel playing an "early 19th century" Tröndlin (SONY S2K 60761); this is also out of print, but I own it. Tröndlins were made in Leipzig, DE, but have a Viennese action, because Johann Nepomuk Tröndlin learned piano making in Vienna; I hear an 1830 Tröndlin fairly often, as recently as last Sunday, 11 August, when a Beethoven piano sonata was played on it, in the concerts at the Frederick Collection of Historical Pianos.

The timings in all but 1 of the movements in the latter are shorter than in this set, although a few are so only by a second or two. The tone, however, has a clearly greater warmth, and less brash sound, because of the lesser amount of metal in the frame of the earlier keyboard instruments. This can also affect the balance between the two partners, and these works are the very first to treat the players as equals; by listing the piano first, the composer has stated that the 'cellist is not simply providing an accompanying/supporting basso continuo, but playing a similar principal role. I listened, in chronological order and in immediate succession, to the performances of Op. 69 (which opens CD 1, for a reason not explained in the accompanying booklet) in the Bylsma/Immerseel set, and in the Green/Moyer one (where it closes CD 1). The difference in the tone and the greater strength of the piano are immediately noticeable to my ears, though Moyer keeps the balance fairly equal/even.

There are many fine aspects of this release, especially the committed, dedicated, gorgeous, and superbly interpreted performances themselves, with flawless string intonation, spot-on appropriate rhythms, excellent – I am tempted to say 'perfect,' but feel that word is dangerous and rarely truly justified – ensemble and balance, that, in spite of its shortcomings on the production end, it is truly lovely and will make a fine addition to anyone's collection, even if it, like mine, already contains other recordings of the music. Its packaging is certainly superior to any other on the market of which I am aware. While I personally prefer period instruments and performance practices, I know that many listeners do not. This would be an excellent choice for them; it pleases my ears as much as those, though it will not displace the latter as my first choice.

*He partnered Green in her traversal of Mendelssohn's works for 'cello, reviewed here.