Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov: ‘Ludwig Van Beethoven: Complete Works for the Violoncello and Piano’ Album Review

Harmonia Mundi
Harmonia Mundi

Before we dive into the review, a few general notes. First, let’s deal with the burning question – “what’s a Violoncello?” That’s simply a cello by another name (and it sounds as sweet). You also might meet another Beethoven here if you mostly know him is from his Fifth Symphony. We often think of something heavy, serious and Germanic when Beethoven is referenced. For example the famous opening four note “motto” of the Fifth Symphony: baam baam baam buuuum; when we hear that pounding rhythm, we are notified that we’re in for some “serious” music.

One of the first things you’ll notice with the “Variations in F major, Op. 66” is the sheer joy, the sheer lightness, the utter effervescence that work portrays the Variations (on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”). The beginning seems to set the stage for a light dance; the notes almost seem to skip and jump with a light leap and a pirouette. The cello and piano dance with one another, touching here, leaping there, landing slightly away from each other and coming together again. Messrs. Queyras and Melnikov deftly portray the lovely musical movement. This first piece sets the tone for the entire album, albeit not all of the movements are as light or lithesome. Even the most serious pieces, however, retain their light touch with beautiful interaction and the ability to show movement while conveying a serious tone.

Of course, I’m not the only one recognizing the glorious music making of Messrs. Queryras and Melnikov’s Beethoven album; it was awarded Album of the Year by the French music magazine Classica (Choc de l’année 2014 – Classica). This is not the first Choc de Classica awarded to Mr. Melnikov; his recording of the Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich received the BBC Music Magazine award, Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the Choc de Classica. It was also named as part of BBC Music Magazine’s 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time.

We immediately experienced a more serious tone in the very next piece, “Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5, No. 1” The opening notes already have a more dramatic pause between them that lead to a more somber tone which then increased with lengthened notes. We immediately see the pacing, the tone, and the overall timbre of the sound portrayed in a more serious mode. Yet they recognize that the more somber message is embedded in the content itself and needs only to be expressed faithfully. They do this while avoiding over dramatizing either the pacing or the tone. They are not heavy-handed, but retain a careful light touch even in the most sonorous, deep passages.

I love how we see the buildup in the first piece until we hear it coming to a full forte with the cello leading the piano. then passing the music back and forth to one another and until the very last and loudest moment is reached and then lightness ensues once again to almost a reverie. Clearly one thing about these passages is the sheer virtuosity that is displayed when they play smoking fast passages. Wow! They can haul on their instruments.

Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 5, No 2” is a bit more reminiscent of the Beethoven we’ve come to know and love. We hear that light introduction juxtaposed with the heavy follow-up by the piano then the lyrical passage of melodic cello and piano lovingly playing off one another.

You’ll recognize the opening melody of the “Variations in G Major,” which has been embedded in a number of movies and TV shows, either in their original form from Handel’s song, “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” taken from the oratorio Judas Maccabbaeus or using Beethoven’s 12 Variations on that song, which we have here. After the familiar and light introduction, we hear Beethoven’s playful use of Baroque undertones as he adds flourishes to the original theme, first with Cello then the Cello takes up the theme and the piano adds the flourish. Messrs. Queyras and Melnikov handle (OK, pun intended) musical repartee well. Beethoven soon leaves off the Baroque with a more somber toned play on the theme with both instruments working in concert rather than playing off one another. It’s one of the highlights of the album for me.

Now we slow it down just a bit as with “Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69” taking a somewhat slower, melodic pace. Of Sonata’s 3, 4 & 5, this is the more popular piece. It’s also a bit more reflective. There are times when Mr. Queyras makes you almost believe you’re listening to a viola or even violin with his smooth, often light touch. It’s not as if the notes aren’t reflective of the lower-register instrument; it simply means that his touch is so light, quick and smooth that he removes any sense of ponderous sound from the instrument.  When he does have to dig in, make the sound large and give it gravitas, he is more than capable of doing so.

Beethoven takes on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” in his Variations in E Flat Major. These are bit like jazz artists riffs on musical themes brought up during a session, albeit not impromptu one. They are a way to musically comment, pay homage to and have fun with a predecessor’s (or sometimes contemporary’s) work. Beethoven was 16 when he went to Vienna where Mozart was in residence and had already received much acclaim. He was influenced less directly in a number of ways and he uses this opportunity to put his spin on Mozart’s genius.

Sonata No. 4 in C major Op. 102” strikes me as an almost musical conversation between the two instruments. Right from the opening measure, a question seems to be posed and discussed. Which, in turn, becomes a somewhat stormy argument. Finally the instruments comes together to make a joint statement. Of course, this is all likely to be flights of fancy in my own mind. All that aside the cello takes on its more traditional role of undergirding the melody with its more sonorous timber. Then once again it is released to a more melodic line. While their technique is great, the strong point here is the emotional element that comes through. Their main true to the music as it’s written, but clearly it is not played from automata. These are humans who bring all of themselves to this piece and make the emotions come alive, giving flush to the notes, through the emotional impetus. They do this through emphasis and pacing. To not put too fine a point on it, is simply beautiful.

And finally we complete the journey with “Sonata No. 5 in D major Op. 102.” While still fairly light, there is an intensity to the pacing in the movement and the tone that separates this Sonata from its predecessors. Sonata No. 5 seems to take all the elements that we’ve seen: the back-and-forth repartee, but on a more serious note, the changing of instruments for undergirding the melodic line, to the instruments coming together for harmonic so that we have a combination of almost pure classical sound with elements that foreshadow a more Romantic era sound. The 5th Sonata structurally portrays a somewhat conventional classical sound, Beethoven does add some interesting twists and turns on this, however, especially with the piano. It’s interesting to note that by the time Sonata’s Nos. 4 and 5 were written, Beethoven was deaf.

For me, this album is embodies a vibrantly accurate and yet emotional recording that has a quite contemporary sound. If you think back to one of the reference recordings of the same pieces done by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, these recordings seem more accessible to the modern ear. They are a bit quicker paced and wear their emotions out a little more explicitly. Clearly both sets of recordings are great (as is the wife/husband team, Jacqueline Du Pré/Daniel Barenboim’s recording); this really comes down to more modern sensibilities and preference. This is a Beethoven you may not fully know, but as you listen to it, you may more fully appreciate. Yet another gorgeous recording put forward by Harmonia Mundi. I commend it to your listening pleasure.