Tuesday 25 February 2020

The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall

Lydia Shelley (Photo Kevin Seddiki)
Lydia Shelley (Photo Kevin Seddiki)
Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich Cello Sonatas; Lydia Shelley, Nicolas Stavy; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 February 2020
A mini history of the cello sonata from the 1790s through to the 1930s, in powerful and stylish performances from this Anglo-French duo

On Sunday 23 February 2020, Conway Hall Sunday Concerts played host to the France-based British-born cellist Lydia Shelley and the French pianist Nicolas Stavy who presented three cello sonatas which demonstrated the remarkable range and development of the genre in 150 years. We started with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Opus 5, from 1796, and ended with Shostakovich's Cello Sonata Op. 40 from 1934. Whether by accident or design of programming, in the middle came Brahms' Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor op.38 from 1862-1865 which is almost equidistant in time between the Beethoven and Shostakovich. Before the concert, I gave a pre-concert talk which traced the fascinating history of the cello sonata from Vivaldi through to Shostakovich and beyond.

The genre of cello sonata is fascinating, the classical sonata seems to spring, fully formed from Beethoven's imagination in 1796 when he wrote a pair of sonatas at the court of the cello-loving Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm II. Beethoven's later essays in the genre would develop the relationship between the two instruments, but this first pair of sonatas are the first time that a classical composer explored the cello as a real solo instrument, giving it a voice independent of the piano. Whilst there are plenty of backward looking glances in the music, what Shelley and Stavy's programme showed was the remarkable modern vision that Beethoven brought to the genre.

The sonata's substantial slow introduction (almost a movement in its own right) started dramatically, and developed into something soulful and almost operatic. Shelley played with a lovely elegant tone, whilst Stavy gave the piano a strong presence without dominating. The first movement proper was full of melodic charm, the movement's dialogue between the two instruments full, here, of give and take, drama and elegance. The rondo finale was delightful, with flashes of more serious moments.

Brahms started his Cello Sonata No. 1 in 1862; since Beethoven's final sonata in 1815, there had been something of a gap (no Schubert, no Schumann) and Brahms was probably influenced by the cello sonatas of Bernhard Romberg (composer, cellist, he had played with the young Beethoven in Bonn in 1790 and made improvements to the cello itself). Brahms hesitated over his sonata, removed a movement and re-wrote, only releasing it in 1865. Shelley brought a deeply soulful feeling to the lyrical opening movement, with both performers capturing its underlying sense of melancholy. The Minuet was pointed and elegant, yet with surges of drama and with a trio which almost swung like a waltz. The finale started out as a robust fugue, with Stavy and Shelly making a powerful partnership, but soon the music is breaking the bounds of the genre.

Brahms' sonata both looks forward, exploring what a Romantic cello sonata might be, and back, with glances both at Mozart or Schubert in the Minuet and a quotation from Bach in the finale. Shostakovich's Cello Sonata of 1934 is similarly Janus like, its sense of nostalgic resonance with a bygone age perhaps arising because the sonata was written for Shostakovich and his cellist friend Viktor Kubatsky to play on recital tours alongside the Rachmaninov and Grieg sonatas (and it is worth pointing out that Kubatsky was a pupil of the dedicatee of Rachmaninov's sonata). The first movement started almost in media res, and felt as if Shostakovich was consciously looking back. Shelley and Stavy gave a powerfully intense account of the movement, integrating the more romantic moments and bringing a feeling of questing or searching to it, leading to the strangely eerie coda. Shostakovich follows this with a dance full of the most furious energy, a real show-piece for the cello which Shelley took full advantage of. The Largo started out intense and introspective, and moved to something lyrical and perhaps soulful, but the music seemed to want to take us to icier territories. The final was Shostakovich in almost ironic mode, jaunty pointed but also by turns vigorous, intense, and turbulent with cascades of notes and a smile at the end.

Shelley combines a solo career with being a member of the Quatuor Voce, and her experience includes both modern cello and period (including time with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). Throughout the evening both she and Stavy brought a wonderful technical assurance to the music, but more than that, they made each sonata stylistically appropriate. Their fine partnership moved with sympathy from the 1790s to the 1860s to the 1930s.

Nerdish historical note: Beethoven's first two cello sonatas were almost certainly premiered by the cellist Jean-Louis Duport, and Duport's Stradivarius cello found its way to the French cellist August Franchome in 1843, which means Franchome almost certainly used it to premiere the Chopin Cello Sonata (in Chopin's final public appearance), and in 1974 the 'Duport' Stradivarius was bought by Mstislav Rostropovich.

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