Bailey and Dinnerstein Fearlessly Deliver Five-Alarm Beethoven

Steven Winn on August 21, 2009
As a lens on the arc and evolving character of Beethoven's music, the complete works for cello and piano offer a concise, revealing, and altogether absorbing perspective. It helps, immeasurably, that the performances of the five sonatas and three sets of variations on this two-disc Telarc set are so keenly conceived and finely polished. In phrasing and emphasis, dramatic vigor and empathic responsiveness, cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Simone Dinnerstein deliver throughout.
The Complete Works

The program opens with the two Op. 5 sonatas, composed for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, an amateur cellist, in Berlin in 1796. While both works bristle here and there with the showy, virtuosic brio of Beethoven’s relatively early period, they also foreshadow the darker and more ruminative explorations to come.

Bailey and Dinnerstein signal that long view right from the start, with a wary, almost premonitory utterance of the opening theme in the Sonata No. 1 in F Major. A long Allegro has its share of rumbling, stage-thunder effects, as does the accent-riven Rondo. But the artists continue to engage one another in a purposeful way, without getting lost in the tide. The Sonata No. 2 in G Minor has a brooding, almost tragic undertow. Bailey’s sustained notes gleam darkly against Dinnerstein’s crystalline but never fussy arpeggios in the opening Adagio. A kinetic momentum builds, with a headlong, full-throated expressiveness, leading to an expansive and agitated climax in the Rondo. This is five-alarm Beethoven, fearlessly done.

With the Sonata No. 3 in A Major (Op. 69), roughly contemporaneous with the Symphony No. 5 and the “Razumovsky” quartets, the time frame shifts to the composer’s middle period. The performers stride into this richly eventful, four-movement work with a volatile, combustive lyricism. The Scherzo’s high-voltage exchange benefits from wire-tight dynamic control. The final Allegro sprints with no hint of laboring, and ends with a concussive climax. Only the very brief Adagio comes off as somewhat lax.

Listen to the Music

Sonata No. 1 In F Major,
Op. 5 No. 1, Adagio

Sonata No. 2 In G Minor,
Op. 5 No. 2, Rondo: Allegro
Like his first two, Beethoven’s last piano-cello sonatas (1815) share an opus number (102) and a distinctive character. The C-major Sonata No. 4 opens in near-abject dejection, rendered here with deep-grained conviction, and fans through moods both feverish and despairing en route to a chiaroscuro Allegro molded in shadows. A lean but contemplative 10-minute Adagio in the Sonata No. 5 is framed by one slyly cheery Allegro and another gloriously complicated by a fugue — a final watermark of late Beethoven.

Three sets of variations round out this bounteous recording. As the recent play 33 Variations instructed Broadway audiences, Beethoven could wring high drama out of even the most risible tune. Here, in reworking one theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and two from Mozart’s Magic Flute, Beethoven ranges from rhythmic and melodic inventiveness to unexpectedly deep wells of feeling. Bailey and Dinnerstein give everything the proper weight and attention, whether it’s a mock-military flourish in the Handel set or a plangent irony won from Mozart that makes his Flute seem freshly endowed with special powers.