Sonata in G minor for Violoncello and Piano, Op.5 No.2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

When Beethoven composed his first two cello sonatas in 1796, no precedent existed for the duo combination of cello and piano. Some earlier Italians like Vivaldi and Geminiani composed sonatas for cello and continuo [harpsichord], but Haydn, Mozart, and their late 18th-century contemporaries did not write for the combination of cello and keyboard . The cello was still undergoing a process of emancipation from a post-Baroque association with the concept of continuo: reinforcement of the bass line. Beethoven was thus a pioneer in the development of a literature for cello, treating it as a viable melodic instrument that could participate in musical dialogue with the keyboard.

All told, Beethoven composed five cello sonatas. The third, Op. 69, dates from 1808, when Beethoven was at the height of his career. The last two, published as Op. 102 in 1817, are relatively late. In addition, however, Beethoven wrote three sets of variations for cello and piano, which further enrich the repertoire and remain favorites of cellists. The Variations and the first two cello sonatas are all from very early in his career. Collectively, they paved the way for the cello to earn its status as a full-blooded romantic solo instrument.

He wrote the Opus 5 pair for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II, himself a cellist and patron of the arts. Beethoven played the sonatas in Berlin with Jean-Louis Duport, the King's court cellist, dedicating both works to the monarch.

Both Opus 5 sonatas place great demands on the pianist, which is hardly surprising; in the 1790s, Beethoven’s reputation in Vienna rested primarily on his prowess at the keyboard. The real surprise lies in substantive cello part.

The G minor sonata comprises two large movements; however, the majestic slow introduction to the first movement is so extended that it fulfills the psychological role of a slow movement. Beethoven gives important melodic material to the cellist throughout the sonata; in the intro, it takes its cue from the descending scale outlined in the opening measure. The Allegro is driven and restless, with dazzling runs for both players. In keeping with late 18th-century convention, Beethoven switches to major mode for the Rondo finale, easing the dramatic tension of the imposing Adagio sostenuto and Allegro molto.

Sonata nello stile antico spagnuolo
Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966)

Gaspar Cassadó was Spain’s most important 20th-century cellist after Pablo Casals. And he learned at the foot of the master. Casals heard Cassadó play in Barcelona as a boy, and immediately offered to teach him. When Cassadó went to Paris in 1910 to commence lessons, he was Casals’s youngest student.

Cassadó came by his talent naturally. His father, Joaquín Cassadó, was a prominent Catalan organist, composer, and choirmaster; he founded the Capilla Catalana chorus in 1890, conducting it for many years. He was young Gaspar’s instrumental teacher prior to Casals. Gaspar launched his professional career in 1918. He went on to concertize with such distinguished pianists as Harold Bauer, Artur Rubinstein, and José Iturbi. He performed the Brahms Double Concerto internationally with three of the early 20th century’s greatest violinists: Klaus Huberman, Joseph Szigeti, and Jelly d’Arányi. His original music reflects the influence of Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla, both of whom were Cassadó’s composition teachers during his formative years in Paris. Although he composed a few works for large ensembles – an oratorio, a cello concerto, and an orchestral Rapsodia catalana – he is best known for a substantial corpus of chamber music.

Cassadó wrote the Sonata nello stile antico spagnuolo in 1925 with the dedication ‘To my dear friend Count Guido Chigi Saracini.’ A native of Siena, Chigi-Saracini was the last owner of the medieval city’s 12th-century Gothic urban Palazzo Chigi-Saracini. He made important renovations to the palace, including that of a rococo concert hall. In 1935 he founded the Accademia Musical Chigiana in Siena, where Cassadó would teach for many years. The friendship with Chigi-Saracini was one of many strong connections that Cassadó forged in Italy.

His Sonata is unapologetically retro, fusing aspects of late-Baroque and early classical styles, all cloaked in neo-romantic harmony. The first movement opens with a stately neo-Baroque slow introduction. A chordal piano part contrasts with highly decorated melodic line in the cello, making clear who is the star. The introduction leads to a dance-like Allegro that perpetuates the cello’s dominance, with the keyboard retaining a largely supportive role. The cello has an abundance of double stops and even a sul ponticello [playing near the bridge] arpeggio passage. Well mannered and positive, with only a couple of shadows, this is sheer entertainment music cleverly housed in a neat sonata form.

Cassadó’s slow movement, a Grave in E minor, manages to maintain a galant air in spite of its somber mien. Again, the piano proceeds chordally, allowing the cello to embroider. Unusual chromatic progressions remind us that this is only tongue-in-cheek ‘old style.’

Spanish flavor emerges most clearly in the delightful finale, a dance with five variations and a coda. One of the variations allocates the theme to the piano, letting the cello flex its imagination in wild flights of fancy. The remaining variations show the different personalities of the cello, with generous dollops of humor. We have a variation in minor mode, and another in which the cello plays entirely pizzicato. Cassadó saves the best for last, with a surprise ending.

A fascinating postscript to the tale of this sonata involves Cassadó’s pianist at the premiere, which took place at the International Music Festival in Venice in 1925. He performed with Giulietta Gordigliani von Mendelssohn, the daughter of an Italian painter whose performing career had ceased when she married into the Mendelssohn banking family in 1898. She was widowed in 1917, inheriting a lucrative partnership in the Mendelssohn & Co. bank. She met Cassadó in 1923 and soon resumed performing. Though she was twice his age, the couple settled in Florence. Their last known performance took place in Milan in 1940. The nature of their relationship remains a mystery. There is no mystery whatsoever to the delightful Sonata they premiered, one of Cassadó’s most charming works.

Sonata in F major, Op. 6 for Violoncello and Piano
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Richard Strauss’s orchestral tone poems and stage works operas are staples of the concert hall and opera house. His early works, however, are curiosities that get revived only occasionally. The loss is ours as chamber music lovers, for as a brash young man Richard Strauss composed almost exclusively for modest forces, enriching the Lieder and chamber literature. Four pieces of chamber music date from the 1880s: a String Quartet, Opus 2; the Sonata Mr. Peled and Ms. Polera play this evening; a Piano Quartet, Opus 13, and a Violin Sonata, Opus 18. Strauss never returned to chamber music except for two minor violin movements from the 1940s, both of which were published posthumously. That makes this early Cello Sonata doubly important in the chamber literature.

During the winter and spring terms at Munich University, Strauss was ostensibly studying philosophy, aesthetics, and art history, but he soon left to focus on music. His early Violin Concerto, Opus 8, and the popular First Horn Concerto, Opus 11 also date from the university term in 1882-83. Concurrently, Strauss was at work on the Cello Sonata. All three works show the influence of Mendelssohn and, surprisingly, Brahms. Strauss had not yet felt the Wagnerian ‘pull’ that would be so influential in his large tone poems and, especially, his operas.

Youthful impetuosity assails us straight out of the gate in the first movement. Quadruple-stopped exclamation points from the cellist reinforce a bold chordal statement from the piano. Cello soon establishes its hegemony in a passionate, enthusiastic first theme. The material is nicely balanced through this sonata structure. Strauss shows that he knows how to lighten up, writing in places with delicacy and humor. ππHe employs well-crafted counterpoint in the development section. Each theme group is thoroughly explored, with recurrent rhythms knitting together the musical narrative. A four-part fugato leads to the recapitulation, and Strauss closes the movement with a brilliant coda.

The more songful Andante ma non troppo, in D minor, casts the cello as baritone soloist. The structure is ternary [A-B-A’], with a dark, spare ending. The Finale erases all traces of gloom; in fact, it feels like a Scherzo: bouncy, and full of Beethovenian surprises with respect to dynamics and sudden stops and starts. Both cello and piano have ample opportunity for virtuosic licks and, as in the first movement, Strauss’s writing is sometimes capricious. It all adds up to a convincing and entertaining listening experience.

Strauss clearly thought highly of this work. When he left Munich University for Vienna at the end of his second term, he took with him three pieces: the Violin Concerto, the Horn Concerto, and this Cello Sonata. He was 18; these were his calling cards. Strauss wrote the sonata for Hanus Wihan, the same cellist for whom Dvořák would later write his Cello Concerto. Wihan played the premiere in Nuremberg in late November, 1883. Strauss was on his way to a brilliant career.

By Laurie Shulman © 2019
First North American Serial Rights Only