Just like Johann Sebastian Bach before him, Ludwig van Beethoven played a significant role in the development of the cello. His five Sonatas for cello and piano, three cycles of Variations and the Triple Concerto all enhanced the instrument's expressive scope to an extent that has not been surpassed to date. With his unparalleled ability to endow the instrument with highly lyrical and elegantly cantabile qualities, he blazed the trail for composers who would follow him.
Therefore, in what way and to what extent did Beethoven's last Sonata, the fully-completed and visionary op. 102, no. 2, influence Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss, two composers with such very different and idiosyncratic styles?
This present album takes listeners on a journey through the German Romantic repertoire encompassing the power of tradition, the effect of original ideas and the ramifications of the innovation.
In his last Sonata for cello and piano, Beethoven breaks with the traditions of the genre, as if he wanted to appeal to future generations. When this met with incomprehension in his contemporaries, he simply responded: "They will eventually understand."
The experience gained in composing the four previous Sonatas enabled him to achieve an unusual concentration of themes and a perfect balance between the two instruments in the fifth one. The first movement then is a perfect gem of thematic concentration and precision. Diverse musical material, some of it lyrical, some rhythmic, blends to form significant contrasts. Beethoven's skill in varying the main theme in the development is equally remarkable.
The second movement does away with the traditional role of the cello. Until then, the cello had hardly been given the opportunity to compete with other solo instruments or with the piano. A few years earlier, Johann Sebastian Bach had relieved it of its (exclusive) role as an accompanying instrument, but without really exploiting to the full the scope of its expressive possibilities.
In the second movement of his Sonata in D major, Beethoven composed his only slow movement for piano and cello. Here, the cello is given the liberty of expressing a variety of emotions, some of them coy, but all of intensive character. The performance instruction con molto sentimento d'affetto, the mezza voce of the beginning, the various legati and the espressivo passages repeatedly marked in the cello's part, all point to the threshold exceeded here: the cello can now, thanks to its lyrical qualities alone, deliver great emotions.
The fifth sonata concludes with a masterly and innovative fugue that contrasts with the sweet gentleness of the second movement and allows us to participate in its creator's visionary spirit, which shines through the last years of Beethoven's oeuvre.
Although the principle of the fugue is certainly reminiscent of Bach, and evokes a rigorously contrapuntal style, Beethoven does endow it with a further component. He applies the form of the traditional double fugue to it, which he then takes to its limits with the aim to establish a new desire for freedom.
Locked in his soundless world, Beethoven can only escape that prison through an enormous effort of imaginative creativity – perhaps the only route open to him in this situation: By choosing a compellingly prescribed form, he then found a way to break free of it by composing something new.
Whereas Beethoven looked to the future, Brahms oriented himself keenly to the masters of the past. He sincerely admired Bach and Beethoven and enjoyed interpreting them both at the piano; He made detailed studies of their masterworks in order to better understand them. For Brahms, their legacy is a great source of inspiration. After he moved to Vienna, he wrote that he wished henceforth "to drink his wine where Beethoven had drunk his". At the same time, he admitted how greatly he suffered beneath the overpowering shadow of Beethoven, a shadow that seemed to constantly burden him.
The Sonata in E minor for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms exemplifies the composer's desire to contribute to the legacy of this sonata form. The piano virtuoso and conductor Hans von Bülow was later to point to the "three great Bs", the musical line, so to speak, of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
The first movement of Brahms's sonata in traditional ABA' form is very different due to its beautiful Romantic phrases created on the basis of very simple intervals.
The second movement is inspired by the minuet, more of a Baroque or Classical form, which after Beethoven was gradually replaced by the scherzo. By choosing the minuet form for this movement, Brahms takes a retrograde step, and honours the models of the past. Of course, he stylizes the outdated form and gives it his own stamp. The contrast between the "minuet" section (from a historical point of view minuet I) and the "trio" (minuet II) is particularly impressive. While the minuet sets out the distinguishing features of the original dance in a very formalistic manner on three beats, the trio distances itself from such strict formality. The trio does however stick to three beats, though its rhythmic structure is marked by phrases with extended legato slurs and hemiolas (a stylistic device beloved of Brahms). Instead of innovating on the form, Brahms revives the richness of the old tradition all the more sonorously.
We find another echo of times past in the third movement, for which Brahms chose the fugue. It may seem reminiscent of the Contrapunctus 13 from Bach's The Art of Fugue, though it seems almost certain that Brahms had the finale of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in mind, which is alluded to above. Ending with a fugue was not general practice at the time. Even if both fugues are very different from a tonal point of view, it is perfectly feasible to view the choice as a sort of homage by Brahms to his great role model Beethoven. Here too, Brahms was aware – as witness these echoes of the past – that this was the way to establish his own originality. While the counterpoint demands a real, especially rhythmic sense of stability, in this fugue Brahms introduces a polyrhythm alongside syncopated rhythms. In the central tranquillo section he inserts that sweetness so characteristic of his music. Here, the entire Brahmsian universe manifests itself to us.
Richard Strauss grew up a great admirer of both Beethoven and Bach. His father, a musician and well-known anti-Wagnerian, chose for his son a musical education based on the cult of the "Classics". When the 20-year-old Richard Strauss presented his Sonata for cello and piano, that influence was clearly recognizable, primarily in the various fugally-treated passages which appear in all three movements of the sonata. These fugati lend the work a hint of something from yesteryear and a severity that places it in the conservative field. In contrast, there are many artistic departures into the lyrical sphere which already herald Richard Strauss at the zenith of his powers.
The first movement reveals the composer's monumental and colourful style. Indeed, the composition has a very orchestral air to it right from the first bars, an impression strengthened by the coda, which is impressive for its tonal intensity and intensive harmony.
The second movement displays a spectacular sense of the dramatic and an equally lyrical substance. The very slow tempo, and the almost ecstatic dimension of the introduction and development, are doubtless reminiscent of the slow movement of Beethoven's sonata, that is featured at the beginning of this CD.
It should be mentioned, however, that Strauss employs some features that were later to characterize his great works: the scope of his dynamics (from ppp through to fff), very long intervals, even within an individual phrase, and a particularly personal choice of harmonic tension.
The last movement develops this extreme modernity even further, with the fugato principle ever present. The tonal complexity is tangible, as are the unexpected modulations so characteristic of Strauss's style. Equally, his sense of the theatrical comes through clearly. In particular, the mutual, playful emulation between piano and cello in the transition to the development is something for listeners to savour. The epic nature of his future heroic characters can be heard in the development of the tonal material.
Despite his youthful age and the admiration that the young Richard Strauss felt for Beethoven and Brahms, he does pursue his own path here, a path that would lead to the originality and modernity that audiences would marvel at in his Elektra before he turned temporarily towards a more traditional path.
The merging of tradition, originality and innovation is a highly complex process and was to develop throughout the various stages of a composer's life. Beethoven was 45 when he composed his Sonata op. 102, no. 2. He was entering the last creative period of his career and chose the path of innovation and independence. Brahms began his Sonata in E minor just before he turned thirty. He had already proved himself as the composer of several masterpieces, but his approach was one that strove to conciliate tradition and originality. Richard Strauss was only 19 years of age, just emerging from puberty, when he presented his Sonata for cello and piano, and although he was still greatly influenced by musical traditions, his own vision can clearly be recognized in this work.
Let us conclude with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche from Thus Spoke Zarathustra – a work that Strauss would later set to music: "The pace reveals whether someone is already treading his path […]! If someone is approaching his goal, however, he dances."