The signature. The first movement alone of this piece is breath-taking. “Inter Lacrimas et Luctum” the composer wrote on the score dedicated to Ignaz Freiherr von Gleichenstein, his long-time patron and friend. In the midst of tears and sorrow – in 1809, when the score was being printed, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s troops, and for von Gleichenstein, member of the Austrian war council, it was a bitter time. Ludwig van Beethoven, who had condemned the imperialist dreams of Napoleon a few years earlier, was no less afflicted. The Cello Sonata in A major (Op. 69) illustrates this mood. At the same time its combative parts are encouraging, a cry of revolt. A very, very impressive composition.
Von Gleichenheit was an acceptable cellist, but the amazing recording of Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin showed me that this is not exactly a piece for the amateur. The cellist Isserlis confessed in a piece written in 2007 for the “Guardian” that he had to overcome his “pathetic little show of resistance to Beethoven”. Early on he had decided, for reasons he does not elaborate, that he didn’t like Beethoven. Can you believe this? I am awfully glad he switched sides.
It took an invitation from the pianist Robert Levin to perform all of Beethoven sonatas in Boston with Levin on the fortepiano. “I caved in”, he writes, “I found the prospect irresistible: Robert is not only a great player, but also a very distinguished musical scholar, and I knew I would learn a lot from working with him. Levin wanted to play his part on fortepianos, instruments similar to those Beethoven would have used. “Playing them with a fortepiano brings us much closer to the sound-world that he knew.”
Listening to it is a physical experience I cannot possibly describe. It has so many facets, so many delightful moments, with brilliant ideas and shifts of moods expressed through increasing and decreasing volume, brutal shifts of tempi, radical contrasts, moments were the music almost seems to be elevated, kept suspended in the air, before it is being brutally thrown back to earth. I wonder how Beethoven’s audience reacted. Were they still shocked as they were by other compositions? Were they exhilarated like myself?
Beethoven did have a tough time to sell the piece along with others to the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel as his many letters to the publishers show. They are available online thanks to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, and, while reading them, I found a delightful anecdote: Beethoven instructed the publishers to omit the professional title of the dedicatee. Von Gleichenstein was a “k. k. Konzipist”, today one would speak of a project manager today. He was about to leave for an intelligence mission and did not want to be exposed as a government official. Beethoven’s music as a threat to national security – I like that!
© Charles Thibo