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Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2

June 19, 2022 – Amanda Forsyth; Shai Wosner, piano

Beethoven composed his first two cello sonatas in the early summer of 1796 while visiting the Berlin court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was himself an amateur cellist. Dedicated to the king, the sonatas were premiered by the composer at the piano with cello virtuoso Jean-Louis Duport—not to be confused with his brother Jean-Pierre, a less famous cello virtuoso who was already in the employ of the king. Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s student and biographer, reported that “on his departure he received a gold snuffbox filled with Louis d’ors. Beethoven declared with pride that it was not an ordinary snuffbox, but such a one as it might have been customary to give to an ambassador.”

Despite their being “early” works, the Opus 5 Cello Sonatas, like the early trios and piano sonatas, show the hand of a full-fledged master. The original title—“two grand sonatas for piano and obbligato cello”—reflects the eighteenth-century tradition in which the keyboard predominated and the second instrument played an accompanying role. Though the keyboard is indeed prominent in these works, Beethoven often made it an equal partner, thus forging a new realm for the cello sonata far beyond what scholar Lewis Lockwood called “wallpaper sonatas” of such cellist-composers as Luigi Boccherini. Inspired in part by Mozart’s violin sonatas, Beethoven now showed off the cello in all of its registers and as a match for the piano’s wide range of expression. This expansion of the cello’s role had much to do with the Duports—in particular, the proficiency and personality of Jean-Luis, who had opened up a new era of technical achievement in his playing and teaching of the instrument.

Both of the Opus 5 Sonatas follow the same two-movement layout, possibly modeled after Mozart’s C major Violin Sonata, K. 303. Their first movements are preceded by a long, slow introduction, which makes a slow movement unnecessary, and each concludes with a merry rondo finale to finish off the form.

The extensive introduction of the G minor Sonata presents a many-faceted drama with plots and subplots that include forceful pronouncements, plentiful dotted rhythms, lyrical yearning lines, and judicious uses of silence near the end to build suspense for the main Allegro section. He generously presents two ideas in both of the exposition’s first and second theme groups, all of which he treats virtuosically in the development section, where he even introduces a lightly dancing new theme. Following his recapitulation he concludes with a turbulent coda. This is one of Beethoven’s most extended sonata movements—it amounts to more than five hundred measures even without the prescribed repeat of the exposition and of the development and recapitulation—and yet its coherence is remarkable.

The bubbly rondo refrain of the second and final movement banishes the dark mood. It begins unexpectedly in C major rather than G major, a trick the composer liked enough to repeat for the last movement of his G major Piano Concerto. This catchy refrain encompasses three ideas, all of which Beethoven returns to and varies in this ingenious combination of rondo, variation, and ternary form. The refrain alternates with equally inspired episodes: the first sweet then poignant as it turns to the minor mode and the second a much extended episode in the C major key of the opening. The entire refrain-episode-refrain succession of the beginning returns after this substantial middle episode, and so the rondo form (A-B-A | C | A-B-A) gives the overall impression of a simpler three-part form. Beethoven adds a coda that pauses the forward momentum with a new alternately soft and forthright melodic phrase before the whirlwind conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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