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Celebrating Beethoven: The Cello Sonatas

Qin Li-Wei and Albert Tiu

Esplanade Concert Hall, last Saturday (April 24)

Last year marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, but planned celebratory concerts in Singapore had to be cancelled or deferred because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is, however, never too late to indulge in his genius, as this concert of three sonatas by cellist Qin Li-Wei and pianist Albert Tiu amply demonstrated.

Beethoven was the creator of the cello sonata genre, his five sonatas spanning the three periods of his creative output.

The duo chose to perform the last three sonatas, encompassing Beethoven’s middle and late periods.

Sonata No.3 in A major (Op.69) is perhaps Beethoven’s best-known and most performed, characterised by its wealth of memorable melodies.

Qin opened the piece unaccompanied with a first bowed breath, wistful yet confident, that was to set the tone for the evening. Tiu came in at the sixth bar, and one immediately knew this was to be a partnership of firsts among equals.

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Their intuitive sense of give-and-take was apparent at the outset and grew more acute in the Scherzo’s syncopated entries, where split-second timing and razor-sharp reflexes became even more critical.

Surging passion was key to the outer movements, with both musicians tapping into vast resources of technique and experience to deliver soul and nuance aplenty. There was never a dull moment through the sonata’s half-hour duration.

One has to look way back to 1992 to recall a reading of similar breadth and authority, by no less than the late great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with pianist Lambert Orkis at Victoria Concert Hall.

The pair of late sonatas, both shorter works, provided more contrasts and surprises. While Beethoven was a visionary who looked towards the future, there were also nods to past traditions.

Sonata No.4 in C major (Op.102 No.1) revealed daring harmonies, trenchantly brought out, that would have sounded modern for 1815, while Sonata No.5 in D major (Op.102 No.2) contained the only slow movement to be found in all five sonatas.

Time stood still for its longueurs – a whole nine minutes marked Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto (slowly with much feeling of affection) – before it closed with a hair-raisingly tricky fugal finale.

By now, the duo had performed some 70 minutes without intermission, yet seemed to be raring for more.

This they delivered in two delightfully lyrical encores, first with the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. This was a clever choice since its melody was an inversion of the opening theme from Beethoven’s final cello sonata, besides being played in the same key.

Tom Poster’s expansive arrangement of Harold Arlen’s Over The Rainbow, popularised by Yo-Yo Ma in his latest album, brought on even more cheers at the close.

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Book It / Celebrating Beethoven: The Cello Sonatas

Where: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

When: Monday (May 3), 7.30pm

Admission: $38 to $98 via Sistic (call 6348 5555 or go to Sistic’s website)

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

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