Haimovitz and O’Riley team up for intimate and revelatory Beethoven
Cellist Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, at the fortepiano, played Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano in two separate concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday. As pioneering as the best of this music is, there is relatively little of it. On the fine CD that Haimovitz and O’Riley issued early this year, “Beethoven, Period,” the total works amount to two hours and twenty minutes.
The CD title, and O’Riley’s choice of instrument, gives away the special quality of these performances. Haimovitz played an early 18th century cello, fitted with gut strings and a rosewood tailpiece, and wielded a bow made by the celebrated 19th-century luthier Dominique Peccatte. At the museum, O’Riley played a modern replica of a six-and-a-half octave, 1830 Viennese fortepiano.
Period instruments commonly means a specific manner of playing, characteristically fast tempos and no vibrato in the strings, but what made this concert special was how the musicians used the instruments as a means to express their own interpretations, free of any particular stylistic dictates for how the music should go and of any didactic extremism.
Their brief but informative program notes described their thinking, how the fortepiano, with its jangle-y color and curt sustain doesn’t have the sonic power of the modern piano, and how the period cello, itself less resonant than its modern counterpart, has to leave space for its companion to be heard.
Beyond that technical challenge, at the second and final program Saturday evening, the pair played with a vibrant level of communication with each other and with the music. Every phrase and gesture was an opportunity to share, or respond, with each other and the audience, something they found meaningful in the music. Everything had a dynamic and rhythmic shape, and an expressive purpose. That seemed an ideal approach; like Beethoven’s violin sonatas, these are lively conversations.
The concert began with the Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” Pamina and Papagano’s duet from Die Zauberflöte, and the prominence of the fortepiano as an equal with what is usually the solo instrument is immediate—the keyboard plays Pamina’s opening melody, the cello the response.
The seven variations that follow make for one of Beethoven’s parlor works, music meant for pleasure and entertainment. The music perked up everyone’s attention—without the carry of modern instruments, the audience had to extend their ears a bit more toward the musicians. And so the sonatas that followed were intimate and absorbing. Working in chronological order, Haimovitz and O’Riley played Op. 69, then the two Op. 102 sonatas, Beethoven’s final works in the form.
The fundamental contrast in the instruments made the music sound that much better, the sharp, bright attack of the fortepiano expressed charm and rhythmic vitality, while the cello’s gut strings, which naturally emulate the human vocal chords, added a few milliseconds of envelop to every attack. The contrast between colors and long and short sounds seemed exactly what Beethoven was hearing in his head when he wrote the music.
The rhythmic tension in parts like the scherzo of Op. 69, the finale of Op. 102, No. 1, and the opening movement of Op. 102, No. 2—where the fortepiano seems to egg on the reluctant cello—was unusual and deeply satisfying. Haimovitz and O’Riley amiably debated exactly how the phrases should go, with no single correct answer. There was sufficient common ground so that the agreement to disagree opened up a whole new way of hearing the music.
With the fortepiano especially, O’Riley could play Beethoven’s tense, jaunty, explosive rhythms with a minimum of effort and a maximum of natural effect, they sounded far more danceable than usual. Meanwhile, Haimovitz played the melodic lines in the sonatas—some of Beethoven’s loveliest—with a light touch of vibrato at only the start of sustained tones, and with a swelling expression that followed the rise and fall of his phrases. He made everything sing.
The musicians’ grasp of the large-scale form was impressive. They took a minimum of breaks between individual movements, mainly so Haimovitz could retune, and were constantly driving forward, playing each note and measure with great musicality while also grasping the role each passage had in the powerful logic of Beethoven’s architecture.
Hearing these two gifted musicians working together with such pleasure and mutual understanding was like seeing two people collaborate on a challenging crossword puzzle, at high speed—fascinating in the moment, and, once the mind caught up to what they were doing, uncanny and dazzling.