By David Templeton | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Beethoven never seems to go out of style. Though some of his works have tended to wax and wane in popularity over the 252 years since the great composer was born, certain pieces seem to be embraced with increasing enthusiasm by players and aficionados with every passing decade. Among these are Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, written at various stages of his career and apparently having a fresh resurgence in popular approval and regard at the present moment.
In June 2021, Yo-Yo Ma and longtime collaborator Emanuel Ax released a recording of the Beethoven cello sonatas under the evocative title Hope Amid Tears, presenting them in the order they were composed. Last November, the Seattle Symphony similarly presented the full cycle of Beethoven cello sonatas in a single evening. Audiences were treated to a musical journey through the composer’s life, from the first and second sonatas, written for piano and cello in 1796, when Beethoven was 26 years old, to the third in 1808, and finally the fourth and fifth in 1815, written 12 years before his death in 1827 at the age of 56. In January, acclaimed cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, formerly of the Cypress String Quartet, teamed up with pianist Robert Koenig for a recording of Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello, including all five sonatas.
Most recently, in June 2022, cellist Alisa Weilerstein released her own recording on Pentatone of the cello sonatas, with longtime collaborator and pianist Inon Barnatan. It’s a project that was perhaps a bit inevitable, as the second sonata was one of the first Beethoven pieces she learned, when she was eight or nine years old. To this day, Weilerstein says, she recalls a certain amount of personal intimidation associated with the piece at the time and notes that she did not play any of the five pieces in front of a live audience until much later in her career.
“It was less out of fear than out of respect,” she says. “I wanted to do them justice.”
Though Weilerstein has since played the Beethoven sonatas many times, it was not until last year that she decided to record them with Barnatan, with whom she has been collaborating and performing since 2008. The sonatas have always been of particular importance to them as recital partners. “The fifth Beethoven cello sonata was actually the first piece we ever played together, and now we always program at least one of Beethoven’s sonatas in our recitals,” Weilerstein says. “We have them in a kind of rotation, and a few years ago, with the big Beethoven year coming up, we’d scheduled tours where we were going to do all five sonatas in 2020 to celebrate his 250th birthday. But then Covid came along and shut those plans down.”
Having always intended, at some point, to record the sonatas, Weilerstein and Barnatan realized that not having the opportunity to tour granted them the free time and energy to tackle the project at last. “We’ve always loved playing the sonatas together, and have really kind of internalized all of them. We thought we were in a place to make a recording of them,” Weilerstein explains. “We had a lot of time to think and process, and in October of 2020, we checked to see if the hall was free, and it was, so we said, ‘Let’s do it. Whatever. We’ve been wanting to do this, we have the time, we have the space. Let’s do it.’ And so we did.”
The hall where the recording took place, over the course of a week, was the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla, California. During the process of preparing and recording, Weilerstein enjoyed digging even deeper into the sonatas, with which she was already passionately familiar.
“Over the years, every time we have come back to the sonatas, which has been often, we always discover something new,” she says. “That’s the nature of any kind of masterpiece. What is amazing to me is how achingly human they are, how emotional and how vulnerable they are. At the end of the first sonata and second movement of the fifth sonata, though they were written years apart and though they are very different, you really get a sense that you are peering in at Beethoven during a very private moment. It’s almost unbearable, at times, how vulnerable this music is. That feeling grows the more familiar I become with these pieces.”
Cellist Thomas Mesa has a similarly deep love of the Beethoven cello sonatas.
“They are some of the first pieces I learned when I was first learning the instrument,” he says. “I was about 18, I think, when I started learning Sonata No. 3, and I’ve studied this piece at various points in my life. I always remember that when I first encountered it, my elementary impression was, ‘Oh, this is just a bunch of scales and arpeggios.’ That’s how I dissected it in my brain. But then I began to delve in more deeply, and it became what it really is: absolutely stunning music, gorgeous in its simplicity but also deeply effecting and full of emotion. It’s so much more than scales and arpeggios.”
The third cello sonata in particular holds a special place in Mesa’s heart. “It was the first piece I ever played onstage where I didn’t feel at all nervous or uncomfortable,” he says. “I was younger, of course, and honestly, I think part of it was that I played soccer most of that day. I arrived at the performance feeling totally relaxed, having not practiced the music at all. I warmed up 30 minutes before the recital and then went onstage and felt totally refreshed, so the music felt fresh, and to this day I remember it as being just totally easy and calm. And now, whenever I play it, I remember that and try to bring that sense of freshness to my performance. And it works.”
Though Mesa is unable to identify a favorite of the five, having discovered that he finds himself drawn to different pieces at different moments in his life, the third sonata stands out as particularly rich and full of potential for new discoveries. “It has all the great things you love about Beethoven and about the cello,” Mesa says. “It’s bombastic, it’s unhinged, but it’s structurally refined and rhythmically beautiful. It’s the Beethoven we know and love in one sonata.”
Noting that Beethoven was 37 when he wrote the third cello sonata, Mesa finds himself engaged in the composer’s struggles to seek beauty and hope at a difficult time in his life. “When Beethoven wrote it, he was going through a lot. There was his oncoming deafness, of course, but also this deep depression where he was privately expressing suicidal thoughts. Even in that state, he writes this unbelievably positive sonata. I have to assume it was a balm to his soul. How does someone do that? At a moment of profound grief for all he had lost and was about to lose, he finds a sense of exuberance and possibility and hope and beauty, and he puts it all into this piece of music. It blows my mind.”
Weilerstein, for her part, also resists naming a favorite, pointing out the difference between compositions a musician enjoys performing and those they simply enjoy listening to. To that end, she admits to enjoying performing the third, fourth, and fifth sonatas, and adds that audiences often seem to especially enjoy listening to the third sonata, as it is the most evenly balanced between the cello and the piano.
“Historically, of course, the third sonata is really the first that is truly a piano-cello sonata,” she says. “Everything else before that was really piano with cello obbligato. In the first Beethoven cello sonata, the cello is really just kind of playing some countermelodies along with the piano, honestly, but in the third, the dialogue between the piano and the cello is truly equal, and that was the first time that happened. And then you get to the fourth and fifth sonatas, which are groundbreaking in different ways. They are harmonically and structurally entirely original and completely groundbreaking in ways that changed everything. That’s why they are so much fun for me, personally, to be able to perform. There’s just so much about them that is wonderful.”
As for the enduring popularity of the Beethoven sonatas, and the continuing attraction that players and audiences have for them, Weilerstein thinks that is unlikely to change anytime soon. “They just have so much to offer,” she says. “I have probably made the mistake of being somewhat afraid of them, as I mentioned before, in the same way that many cellists approach the Bach cello suites as these monumental works that are sacred and imposing—that the Bach cello suites are the Old Testament and the Beethoven cello sonatas are the New Testament. There is a lot of baggage that comes with approaching them that way. I’ve realized that to do justice to them, I have to let go of that fear and just jump in with both feet.”
It sounds like Weilerstein is suggesting that musicians let themselves have fun with this music.
“Oh yes,” she says. “Absolutely. When you stop being afraid, it’s impossible not to have fun with the Beethoven cello sonatas. They are just so rich, the perfect balance between intellect and emotion, between the brain and the heart. I’ve always enjoyed playing with that balance, and these sonatas give me the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Tips from Thomas Mesa: How to Play a Beethoven Cello Sonata
“When I am working on a Beethoven piece, it’s a very specific kind of work,” says cellist Thomas Mesa, asked to share a tip or two about how best to approach any or all of Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano. “These pieces require very precise micro-adjustments and micro-gestures to make sure you are doing all of the markings he is asking for. The first thing that comes to mind is the infamous one, creating the pianos and the fortes that are usually back-to-back, where Beethoven is introducing these unexpected moments of having the rug pulled out from under you, or just smacking you with a forte when you didn’t see it coming.”
Mesa points out that as a cellist, the physical act of creating those types of changes, right on top of each other—going from soft to loud in an instant—doesn’t always feel quite natural. “So, overcoming that innate resistance to doing something unnatural, that’s very important in effectively accomplishing those back-to-back fortes and pianos,” he says, adding, “Beethoven asks a cellist to do many awkward things—long bowing that needs to be divided, fingering that doesn’t immediately seem possible. All of that has to be figured out and overcome, technically. This is, of course, music for the cello that was written by a pianist, who arguably didn’t really have a lot of sympathy for any musician complaining that his music was too hard.”
Mesa also urges players, when approaching these pieces for the first time, to avoid the temptation of overinterpreting them. “You don’t have to say more than what is already there,” he suggests. “Beethoven’s music speaks for itself. You certainly can insert your own individuality into this music. That is important, but it’s also important to remember that you are the voice of the composer. When I play Beethoven, it’s my job to play like Beethoven would play if he were a cellist. I love thinking about it that way. It puts the composer above the player and with pieces like these, thinking like that, to me, is
the best way to unlock their magic.” —DT