Let me confess that compared to other Beethoven works the cello sonatas are lesser favorites of mine. Although I have over the years collected quite a few complete albums including Casals/Serkin and Fournier/Kempff and a selection of singles like Ma/Ax and Maisky/Argerich, these works never occupied a significant place in my heart. The recent Decca release of the complete album by Li-Wei Qin and Albert Tiu didn’t change my bias either despite the artistic rendering of the Chinese collaborators.
I know there are many more legendary performances, notably by Rostropovich/Richter and Harrell/Ashkenazy so I think the problem lies with me. I simply don’t like these sonatas as much as I love the five concertos, the 32 piano sonatas and the 10 violin sonatas. One thing they used to say about Beethoven’s cello sonatas is that they are "grand". Grand because Haydn and Mozart did not write any and Beethoven’s Op.5 was the first of its kind. What’s more, the two cello sonatas of Op.5 were dedicated to the Prussian king who happened to be quite an accomplished cellist. Anything fit for a king had to be grand. Can’t argue with that.
I don’t have to mention any works by Beethoven that are genuinely and unanimously regarded as grand but I simply cannot link the cello sonatas to the same level. The unthinkable thing about this Norwegian recording is that for the first time ever I felt a musical impact on first listen. This impact has grown steadily upon further auditions until I began to feel a certain splendor between the musical phrases. Weirdly enough that splendor came from period instruments. Come to think of it, while the modern piano portrays the magnitude and expressive prowess the 32 piano sonatas deserve, it’s quite unexpected that the cello sonatas had to go for a fortepiano to unleash their real potential. Obviously that depends a lot on the musicians who know how to exert such dignity from them. Pianist Kristin Fossheim already was the accompanist to the remarkable Johannes Haarklou Romantic Songs with soprano Linda Øvebrø [2L-62-SACD]. Here her cello partner is her musical soul mate and husband Bjørn Solum. Coincidentally one other recording with fortepiano also is from Scandinavia - the Anssi Karttunen/Tuija Hakkila album [Finlandia FIN99955].
Bjørn Solum has been co-principal of the Oslo Philharmonic since 1989 and now also is the principal of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Oslo Camerata in addition to his active role as soloist. If I say I’ve never heard such expressive and moving cello in Beethoven you might think I’m slighting all the great cellists mentioned earlier. But the fact is never has a cello/fortepiano recording brought the listener so close to the music like this one by 2L. The timbre and sonority are so real and imminent that I feel like opening up every pore on my skin to greedily absorb the music to the last drop. That is sonic impact translated into musical grandeur.
That might just be the reason for my change of perception of Beethoven's cello sonatas. Take Op.5 No.2 for example. Maisky and Argerich excel at dynamic phrasing and lightning reflexes between their two instruments. Casals and Serkin exemplify classical beauty with unadorned spontaneity. Fournier and Kempff liberate the romantic spirit while Qin and Tiu achieve artistic perfection. Yet it is Solum and Fossheim who redefine the architecture of the work with so much inner detail not just in terms of shading of tones or shifting weight but also expressive nuances. All this is accomplished in such an absolutely natural way that the music acquired a human voice. The cello had so much organic texture that it begins to sound like a viol, harmonizing perfectly with the fortepiano which under Fossheim’s hands becomes utterly expressive.
The Op.17Horn Sonata is another grand experience with a period instrument. Steinar Granmo Nilsen plays a natural horn for this recording. That imposes serious technical challenges for the performer (frenzied modulation of lip tension and hand stopping) and the recording engineer (those sudden blurts of brassy wolf tones). Again 2L’s Morten Lindberg walked a tight rope to give us dare-devil closeness to the raw timbre of the instrument. Nilsen’s rapid runs are breathtakingly seamless. The fortes are explosively dynamic and glamorously brassy...