Review/Preview: Guarneri Hall’s Warm Sound Enhances Night 1 of Beethoven Cello Sonatas

Cellist Oliver Herbert and Pianist Xiaohui Yang offered lively and engrossing performances of two of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano last night at Guarneri Hall. It was the first of a two-night rendition this young duo is giving of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. Night two is tonight.

In the third floor of a nondescript, modern high rise in Chicago’s loop, Guarneri Hall is a marvelous, fairly new space to hear live music. It offers a warm and clear sound in an intimate setting, with little separating the audience from the performers. Guarneri Hall allows music originally intended to be played in a home’s living room to return to a small space.

Like symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas, Beethoven produced cello sonatas during all three periods of his compositional career. All occupy a spot near the beginning of each phase, and they cast stimulating insights into the sorts of changes Beethoven would pioneer.

Xiaohui Yang offered a lovely performance. Photo Courtesy of Guarneri Hall.

The two sonatas in Op. 5 were the first works for solo strings and piano to give the strings something more to do than simply accompany the piano. Their structure is rather odd, with both being two-movement works of startling intensity that last 25 minutes. The works’ opening movements offer major deviations to the sonata forms that were prevalent at the time, even for Beethoven himself.

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 charm prevail.

Two final sonatas that comprise op. 102 form beginning of 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.

Oliver Herbert offered insightful explanations of each work. Photo Courtesy of Guarneri Hall.

The first work on last night’s program was the second sonata from Op. 5, in g-minor, which Herbert explained well in introductory remarks. His and Yang’s passion came out with a dramatic take on the work’s introduction, the length of which is unprecedented for a classical work. The cello and piano blended well together, with Herbert giving precision from the bow and fingerboard while Yang offering smoothness and evenness with robustness from the keyboard. Both parts have instances of bombast with quick transitions between soft and loud, and Herbert and Yang were right on.

Kudos also go to Herbert and Yang for honoring all of Beethoven’s repeats, especially of the development and recap of the opening movement. The development seems to repeat again in the coda, which is also of an unprecedented length. Their take on the ribald final was very effective, with Herbert swaying to the beat at the end.

Next on the program was Beethoven’s lone middle period cello sonata, Op. 69 in A-major, a work in three movements. As Herman explained, this piece offers more opportunities for conversations between the two instruments than the g-minor sonata, and Herbert and Yang captured that interplay very well. The finale was absolutely engrossing, especially the melodic runs on both instruments toward the end of each section.

While great, the performance of Op. 69 was not flawless. Yang was sloppy on a couple of runs, and Herbert occasionally got overbearing in the mix. Also, on one occasion their simultaneous melodic phrases did not end in perfect sync. On another occasion, Herbert’s fingering was not even during a lengthy melodic phrase. Over all these issues were trivial to the quality of the performance, which is the sort of experience for which music aficionados live.

I am definitely excited about tonight’s performance of the three remaining cello sonatas. Beethoven did write some sets of variations for this musical ensemble, which are not being performed. Maybe another time. There are a few tickets still available. 11 East Adams, 3rd Floor. $40 general, $10 student. Check here for tickets.

(Note that masking and vaccine COVID-19 protocols are in place. The performers and audience are wearing masks, and proof of vaccine is required upon entry.)

Louis Harris
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.

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