Peter Thomas’ Beethoven Cello Cycle, Part 2
Thomas and pianist Matthew Bergey take on a pair of Beethoven's more free-form cello sonatas.
Beethoven doesn’t get enough credit for the wit and mischief in his music, but cellist Peter Thomas and pianist Matthew Bergey know there’s more to Ludwig than the glowering face on the marble bust.
Sunday evening at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Thomas and Bergy, on the second leg of their survey of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano, alighted upon Beethoven’s “Variations on a Theme from The Magic Flute,” specifically on the duet “Bei Mannern weiche Leibe fuhlen.” Beethoven borrows not only Mozart’s notes, but also his manner through the first five or six variations. Bergey and Thomas played them with a Mozartian take on grace and restraint, and they were charming. Then they and Beethoven got to the Minuet variation — or what would be a minuet, if danced by bulls in Mozart’s China Shop. The antic Beethoven came off his best behavior, and so did the two players. They had loads of fun and so did we.
Thomas, a warm and amusing host as well as a very fine cellist, spoke briefly about the affinity between the Sonata No. 4 in C, Opus 102 No. 1, and the Sonata in F, Opus 5 No. 1 despite being written 20 years apart. He never got around to explaining that affinity, but I think he’s quite right. Some parallels are obvious: Two movements instead of the usual three or four, with several changes of mood and tempo within those two movements in both sonatas.
Third, these sonatas are both odd ducks, structurally. Beethoven, even for him, is uncommonly willful about bending sonata form into a pretzel. He’s almost perverse in the (alleged) C Major Sonata, in which the principal never gets out of C minor until the development. Beethoven does not invite you to locate yourself in the form; he pushes you into just reacting to his abrupt shifts of momentum and materials. His approach in these pieces completely the opposite of the taut unity of, say, the compact and tautly unified Fifth Symphony.
These sonatas are more explosive and not nearly as light as the variations on Mozart, but they aren’t exactly metaphysical or heroic. At least as Bergey and Thomas played them, they sound like a composer thinking out loud, experimenting with what-if’s, painting himself into corners just so he can find clever ways out of them.
Michael Barndt, a perceptive music critic for TCD, mentioned that he heard a more Classical approach to the music from Bergey and a more Romantic assertiveness from Thomas in the F major sonata. I think he was right about that. It’s partly written into the music, as Beethoven gave the piano yards and yards of running scales and the cello outbursts of commentary. But Bergey applied a light touch to them and the creamiest legato. I liked the contrast, which made the music something of a dialog between two aesthetics. (Didn’t I just hear an opera along those lines?)
The duo have one more program in their cycle. At the concert, Thomas announced that due to unforeseen out of town musical engagements, they have postponed the third leg of their Beethoven journey from June to Sept. 29.