Beethoven’s music for cello and piano is not a rarity, but four new recordings in the past year alone is surely an exception. First came veteran cellist Yo Yo Ma, giving seasoned poetry to the five sonatas with the pianist Emanuel Ax (Sony) 40 years after the duo’s first recording. Next (on Avie) was Jennifer Kloetzel, one-time cellist of the Cypress Quartet, with Robert Koenig on a period Blüthner piano: admirably inquisitive and vigorous in the complete cello works, which include three sets of variations and the horn sonata, Op 17, that Beethoven arranged for cello.
The latest recording, of the sonatas only (out on digital; on CD next month), is from Alisa Weilerstein, top among mid-career players, with her regular collaborator, pianist Inon Barnatan (Pentatone). The test piece for anyone sampling these excellent sets is the best known sonata, No 3 in A major Op 69, in which piano and cello find full equality. A peerless technician, Weilerstein embraces both the expansive lyricism and fragile intensity of this work, the singing melodies contrasted with explosive “middle period” drama. She is compelling, too, in the Op 102 sonatas, the first (No 4 in C major) knotty, mysterious and condensed, the second (No 5 in D major) apparently more straightforward, with its tender central movement theme, but pointing towards the adventures of the composer’s late style.
The fourth new Beethoven set, again of the complete works, is an exhilarating addition, from Sung-Won Yang (who recorded the complete Beethoven in 2007) and pianist Enrico Pace (on Decca, only available digitally in the UK). At the moment this is the set that draws me, but I may change my mind.
Ready or Not by the Portland, Maine ensemble Palaver Strings (Azika) celebrates string ensemble works from the Renaissance to the present, all by female composers. It opens with the baroque-inspired Concerto Grosso by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69). The Venetian lutenist, singer and composer Maddalena Casulana (c1544-90) is represented by a string version of her soulful madrigal Morir non può il mio cuore (My heart cannot die).
In Lagrime mie by Barbara Strozzi (1619-77), the mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux expresses the lament’s fierce power. A lovely, jazzy elegy, Fear the Lamb, by Chicago composer Akenya Seymour, remembers the short life of the American civil rights icon Emmet Till. With Irish-inspired folk fiddling to close, the disc ends on a high.