Preview: Isserlis and Levin to Perform Beethoven’s Complete Cello and Piano Repertoire

Steven Isserlis performs (and conducts) with a Stradivarius. Photo by Satoshi Aoyagi.

Symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas are widely recognized as the musical forms that Ludwig van Beethoven turned to in each of his three musical phases, the results of which completely revolutionized the classical forms he inherited from Mozart and Haydn. There is another musical form that occupies all three periods that one rarely hears about, and that is the sonata for cello and piano.

Cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Robert Levin are performing Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano this Thursday and Friday evenings at the Logan Center in Hyde Park. To make this performance historically accurate, Levin will be performing on a fortepiano, the instrument in use when these works were written at the turn of the 19th century. Isserlis will be playing on a Stradivarius cello with gut strings that comes from the turn of the 18th century.

Robert Levin achieves historical accuracy with a fortepiano, Photo by Clive Barda.

The five numbered works that comprise Beethoven’s cello and piano sonata repertoire tend to be near the beginning of each phase and cast stimulating insights into the sorts of changes Beethoven would soon pioneer. The two sonatas in op. 5 give the cello a bigger role than that of mere accompaniment, which is what solo strings typically did when paired with piano. The structure is rather odd, with both being two-movement works of startling intensity that last 25 minutes. The movements themselves offer major advancements to the sonata forms that were prevalent at the time. Three sets of variations from the early period are also on the program.

The third sonata, op. 69 in A-major, is one of only two sonatas for piano and solo stringed instruments that Beethoven wrote in his middle period. It reflects the deeper feelings made possible by the changes he pioneered. This delightful work shows his lighter side, and warmth and ribaldry prevail.

Two final sonatas that comprise op. 102 begin Beethoven’s late period. They feature unusual sonata form movements and a fully fleshed-out fugue—attributes common to many late works. These sonatas herald the amazing things yet to come in the final decade of his life.

Isserlis and Levin will be performing the complete Beethoven cello and piano works this Thursday and Friday, February 21-22, at 7:30 pm at Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. There will be preconcert lectures at 6:30pm. Tickets are $38, $20 for under 35, $10 students. Call 773.702.2787 or visit

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.