It’s always a great sign when I exit a concert mumbling “wonderful,” but that’s what I was saying Wednesday night after cellist Oliver Herbert and Pianist Xiaohui Yang finished their renditions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano. This young duo continued the excellence they displayed on Tuesday night at Guarneri Hall.
Herbert and Yang play with smoothness and confidence. As an ensemble, they gel well. Born in San Francisco, Herbert makes his cello sing beautifully as he adroitly runs his fingers up the finger board smoothly. He also is clearly into the music, making the cello seem an extension of himself. He takes great care in tuning his instrument, and his intonation was perfect throughout both nights. His only downside on Wednesday was an occasional click when his bow hit the instrument during rapid runs.
Yang was born in China. Her touch on the piano combines delicacy and power. In the quieter moments, her fingers seem like feathers, while, in the moments of loud intensity, her touch is sharp and determined. On Wednesday night she had a couple of minor bobbles, but otherwise played stupendously.
One hallmark of an excellent performance is the new insight it can give to a familiar piece of music. Herbert and Yang’s performance of Beethoven’s first cello sonata, Op. 5 no. 1 in F-major, did just that. I have long been aware that this piece stretched the traditional sonata form. There is a ton of material in the exposition section of the first movement, more than the traditional main and secondary themes one typically finds. Herbert and Yang’s subtle performance, especially their ability to show contrasts at the right moments, shed light on how this piece could have fit right in with the music Beethoven was writing in his middle period. As was the practice at the time, Beethoven called for a repeat of the exposition, which Herbert and Yang honored. Ten years later, Beethoven might not have called for that repeat. Herbert and Yang’s playing also called attention to the new melodic material Beethoven added to the ending, a practice unheard of at the time.
Next on the program was the Sonata no. 4 in C-major, Op 102 no. 1. In his remarks before the performance, Herbert talked about how the Op. 102 sonatas represent Beethoven’s foray into the late period, a time when Beethoven used compact themes and fugal tendencies. The C-major sonata illustrated that. Herbert and Yang gave the opening introduction the right, wistful touch, which offered great contrast to the a-minor Allegro vivace in the main part of the opening movement.
For the final work on the program, Sonata no. 5 in D-major, Op 102 no.2, Herbert noted that this was the only cello sonata that has a full-blown slow movement. Each of the previous sonatas had lengthy slow introductions to other movements, but nothing completely worked out in sonata form or as a set of variations. Beethoven saved this opportunity for a delightful Adagio con molto sentiment d’affetto, which Herbert and Yang played with absolute passion.
Unfortunately, even this excellent performance was unable to save the fugal finale from its harsh and brutal coarseness. In the words of cellist and critic Robert Schauffler in his seminal Beethoven biography* from 1929, of the nine fugues Beethoven put in his late works, this one “is the worst of them.” There aren’t many pieces of Beethoven I don’t like, but this fugue is one of them. Herbert and Yang’s performance did not change my view. It’s a bummer to end a concert this way, but I still left muttering “wonderful.”
Up next at Guarneri Hall is Spring Strings, a program featuring the Lincoln Quartet performing Mozart, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. Monday, May 16, at 6:30pm, 11 E. Adams St, 3rd floor, $40, $10 student.
*Schauffler, Robert Haven, Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music, Country Life Press, 1929, p 356.
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