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Beethoven's Complete Works for Piano and Cello

“These are performances that catch the excitement of Beethoven without eschewing tenderness; virtuosic but unfailingly musical in their conception and execution.  Both musicians play flawlessly but these are not mechanical performances: they pulse with the variety of emotion that makes Beethoven one of the greatest and most popular of composers.” -Audiophile

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonatas and Variations for Piano and Cello

Sonata in F major, Op. 5 No. 1
Sonata in g minor Op. 5, No. 2
Sonata in A major Op. 69
Sonata in C major Op. 102 No. 1
Sonata in D major Op. 102 No. 2
Variations in G major
Variations in F major
Variations in E-flat major


Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello)


Listen to AudioNotes:

Notes on the Music:

by David Finckel and Michael Feldman

The Early Works: The Sonatas & Variations of 1796

These pieces are milestones of the cello literature. Although during the eighteenth century the cello had gradually come to be regarded as a solo as well as an accompanying instrument, neither Mozart nor Haydn had composed a cello sonata.  Beethoven was the first major composer to write works with equally important roles for the cello and piano. 

Sonatas Op. 5 Nos. 1 and 2

Composed: Berlin, in the late spring or summer of 1796. Beethoven was on his first and only significant concert tour, which also included the cities of Prague, Leipzig and Dresden. He was 25 years old.

Dedicated to: King Friedrich Wilhelm II, nephew and successor to Frederick the Great. The king was an amateur cellist and devotee of the instrument who had entertained both Mozart and Haydn at his court. Both of these composers had already dedicated string quartets featuring prominent cello parts to the king.

First performance: 1796, during the visit to Berlin, at the royal palace. Beethoven played the piano, and it is thought that Jean-Louis Duport, rather than his older brother, Jean-Pierre, was the cellist. The Duports were renowned virtuosos who lived in Berlin and played in the king's orchestra. It is likely that Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport performed the G major "Judas Maccabaeus" variations on this occasion as well.

Published: February 1797, Vienna

Other works from this period: the Piano Trios Op. 1, Piano Sonatas Op. 2 and Op. 7. In the following year, Beethoven began composing sonatas for piano and violin.


Sonata No.1 in F major, Op. 5 No. 1

In the Adagio sostenuto introduction, Beethoven begins his first cello sonata with caution - hesitations and tense silences lead to melodic ideas (0:31) which are left undeveloped, as though the sonata is struggling to begin. After a climactic cadential flourish (2:11), the music pauses and the piano introduces the Allegro main theme (2:41), ornamented in the style of Mozart, full of details and virtuosity. The second theme (3:40) begins with serious- sounding chromaticism but ends light and carefree, moving through virtuosic scales to a sequence in staccato eighth-notes full of playful rhythmic confusion (4:38). In the exuberant closing material the pianist's hands leap over one another with forceful answers from the cello (5:24), followed by a contemplative coda (5:34) leading to the repeat of the exposition. The development section (9:31) shows the composer's ever-lurking stormy side and a surprise forte announces the recapitulation (11:13). As in many of Beethoven's concertos, there is a lengthy written-out cadenza, beginning with a short fugato passage (14:40). An obsessive sixteenth-note figure in the right hand of the piano (14:50) leads to an unexpectedly droll and sleepy Adagio (15:04) which is interrupted by a wild Prestissimo. The movement concludes happily and vigorously.

The Rondo: Allegro vivace is an exciting ride full of virtuosic
outbursts from both instruments. One can imagine the court's amazement at the spectacle of Beethoven devouring the keyboard in this finale. The only calm moments are dreamy interludes of piano arpeggios over cello drones (2:19). Near the finish, a long ritard (5:17) winds the action down to a standstill, and when the composer has us in the palm of his hand, he ends the work with an explosion of notes from both instruments.

Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven enjoyed surprising and even scaring his listeners. The opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo does just that. A jarring G minor chord is quickly hushed by the marking forte-piano, itself a novel idea, and a spooky scale descends in the piano (foreshadowing the slow movement of the "Ghost" Trio, which he would write in 1808). The motifs and themes of this Adagio are more fully developed than those of the F major sonata's introduction, creating a movement of much greater substance. Unbelievably long silences near the end (4:40) hold the listener under a spell which is broken quietly by the brooding Allegro molto più tosto presto (5:16). In contrast to the previous sonata, the cello takes the theme first, passing it back and forth with the piano. This is a remarkable movement, emotionally multi-layered even through the frequent stormy sections. In the development (10:07) the excitement continues until a new theme enters (10:48), dance-like and delicate, the accompaniment changing from nervous triplets to steady eighth-notes. At the recapitulation, the theme
is beautifully harmonized (11:30), intensifying the emotion. The movement proceeds tempestuously to the finish.

By contrast, the Rondo: Allegro is a study in gaiety and the joy of virtuosity. The movement begins with a harmonic joke: it starts out squarely in C major instead of the expected G major. After a moment the music slides into the home key, a trick Beethoven used later in the finale of the Piano Concerto No. 4, also in G major. Virtuosic stunts abound: for piano (0:14), for cello (0:24) and again for piano. A dark episode (1:16) is dispelled by a chromatic passage returning to the main theme (1:36), which leads to an extended middle section in C major and a new theme (2:25).  The instruments trade virtuosic displays in an almost competitive fashion. The cello surprises (3:47) by substituting an unexpected E-flat in the theme, and this event wrenches the music into the foreign key of A-flat major.

After a full recapitulation (4:07), sweeping scales in the piano herald an extended and brilliant coda (6:00). One can imagine Beethoven, filled with the coffee he loved to drink, rattling away on the keys. After some pompous closing music (6:50) the piano settles things down to a standstill only to have the cello burst in with the main theme in jumping octaves. Joyful wildness concludes the sonata.

12 Variations in G major on "See the conqu'ring hero comes"
from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45

Composed: probably in 1796 in Berlin. Beethoven was a great admirer of Handel; borrowing another composer's melody was considered a gesture of homage at the time. Beethoven may have also chosen Handel's "Conqu'ring hero" theme as a tribute to King Friedrich Wilhelm.

First performance: most likely premiered by Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport in addition to the Op. 5 Sonatas in Berlin.

Published: 1797, Vienna.


The piano plays the noble and elegant Theme while the cello accompanies in the middle register as if it were the viola in a string quartet. This treatment of the theme sets the tone for the entire work - light and transparent in contrast to the weightier F and E-flat variations. The middle, or B section of the theme (0:15) is in the relative minor key, adding a moment of pathos.

Variation I (0:45), entirely for solo piano, is smooth and flowing in contrast to the stately theme. Scales move gently against each other.
Variation II (1:25) allows the cello its own version of the theme in broken, sweeping arpeggios. The piano accompanies with bubbling staccato triplets.
Variation III (2:06) is a display of virtuosity for the pianist's right hand. Broken scales start explosively but end apologetically.
Variation IV (2:48) turns dark with a change of key to minor. The middle section's usually minor episode becomes a glowing E-flat major (3:02).
Variation V (3:35) is a coy conversation between the two instruments. The piano is optimistic and brilliant, the cello sober and simple.
Variation VI (4:24) sounds much like Bach, featuring broken scales in a highly contrapuntal setting.
Variation VII (5:06) allows the cello to run in a brilliant virtuosic display. The piano gets one chance to show off (5:24), in an outburst typical of the composer.
Variation VIII (5:42) shows Beethoven's famous stormy side. In a shocking G minor fortissimo, the piano pounds out the tune in crashing chords against wild scales that move from hand to hand. Dramatically, the storm ceases for a moment in the prayer-like middle section (5:55).
Variation IX (6:24) is childlike and innocent, breezing over the anger of the previous variation.
Variation X (7:06) captures the glory and heroism evoked by Handel's title. The theme is played in canon between the cello and the booming bass of the piano, while the pianist's right hand supplies a bristling sixteenth-note accompaniment.
Variation XI (7:48), marked Adagio, is the most extended slow movement of all three sets of variations.
Variation XII (11:05), the finale, is the most carefree. Beethoven transforms the theme into a lively dance in triple meter. After some odd excursions into foreign keys (11:30) the mirth returns and the work ends in appropriately triumphant style.

12 Variations in F major on "Ein Mädchen oder ein Weibchen"
from Mozart's The Magic Flute, Op. 66

Composed: during Beethoven's visit to Berlin in 1796, or just after. The Magic
Flute was Beethoven's favorite opera.

First performance: unknown.

Published: 1798, Vienna.


More complex, angular and daring than the G major variations, this set also begins with the piano stating the Theme and the cello supporting in the middle register.
Variation I (0:31), as in the G major variations, is for piano solo, but this time in a technically treacherous, jumping style.
Variation II (1:01) is a sweeping and virtuosic statement for the cello in the instrument's high register.
Variation III (1:30) Long, sustained notes in the cello act as foils for a virtuosic display in the left hand of the piano.
Variation IV (1:58) is a dialogue, the cello making sustained, lugubrious statements answered by a gently dancing figure in the piano.
Variation V (2:34) breaks the calm and features two distinct motifs: a rollicking arpeggio and a hammering dotted rhythm played in unison.
Variation VI (3:05) The pianist takes over and shows off the right hand. The cello makes occasional comments.
Variation VII (3:32) features meandering scales in the piano and suggestive comments from the cello.
Variation VIII (4:14) is an all-staccato piece which steadily increases in intensity to the finish.
Variation IX (4:42) is composed entirely of leaping eighth-notes phrased across the main beats, creating a playful, syncopated dance.
Variation X (5:17), marked Adagio, darkens the mood, moving into the key of F minor. The piano states a noble version of the theme, and the cello repeats it starkly, recalling a funeral march.
Variation XI (6:31) As if descending to the underworld, the cello sings a dour tune in its lowest register. A tragic-sounding coda (7:13) leads to: Variation XII (7:37), a joyous finale, full of life and vigor. At the end of this variation a brilliant, extended coda is added (8:16).
An unexpected jolt (8:27) sets a chromatic passage in motion which arrives at the unlikely key of D major, where the theme is briefly stated. A quirky modulation (8:43) brings back the home key, and the coda builds to its climax (8:56) before evaporating to nothing at the conclusion.

Between the Sonatas: The Variations of 1801

7 Variations in Eb major on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen"
from Mozart's The Magic Flute, WoO 46

Composed: 1801, Vienna.

First performance: unknown.

Published: 1802, Vienna.


This set of variations is the most serious of the three, and is the one that most fully captures the spirit of a Mozart opera. The sober nature of the Theme dictates the tone for the entire work. The cello also has an increased role, this time sharing the theme with the piano.

Variation I (0:51) is a lively canon for both instruments with some spiky dissonances.
Variation II (1:32) is an interesting mixture of staccato and legato scales, some brilliant, some lyrical.
Variation III (2:16) places a genteel and elegant melody over a steadily pulsating accompaniment. The variation turns boisterous by the end.
Variation IV (3:08) is written in the somber key of E-flat minor. The piano begins high and descends, and the cello enters in the low register and remainsthere for the entire variation. There is a dramatic moment in the exotic- sounding key of C-flat major near the end (4:04).
Variation V (4:20) is the only humorous one in the work and is marked at a
faster tempo. Triplets shoot like bullets between the instruments. Repeated notes in the left hand of the piano bubble nervously (4:38).
Variation VI (4:56), marked Adagio, is an ornate song with moments of great tenderness.
Variation VII (7:24), the finale, is jumpy and happy, except for a
surprisingly angry coda in Beethoven's signature stormy key, C minor (7:45).

The "Heroic Period" Sonata of 1808
Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69

One of the greatest works in the cello literature, the A major sonata was composed by Beethoven in the midst of one of his most phenomenally prolific periods. The new prominence of the cello, the sweeping use of the instrument's range, and the long, singing lines all herald the full flowering of the cello's role in the duo sonata.

Composed: sketches appear in 1807 amongst those for the Fifth Symphony. Completed in Vienna in the spring of 1808. Beethoven was 38.

Dedicated to: Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur cellist and one of Beethoven's closest friends and advisers from 1807-1810. Gleichenstein helped to organize a consortium of sponsors who offered Beethoven a guaranteed annual stipend to remain in Vienna. It is thought that the dedication of the sonata was a gesture of thanks to Gleichenstein. After the agreement was signed, Beethoven asked Gleichenstein to help him find a wife.

First performance: not documented. A year after the work was completed, Beethoven complained that the sonata "had not yet been well performed in public." The first record of a performance is from 1812 when the sonata was played by Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny and Joseph Linke, the cellist who would later give the first performance of the Op. 102 sonatas. Linke was the cellist of the Razumovsky Quartet, which premiered many
of Beethoven's quartets.

Published: 1809, Leipzig.

Other works from this period: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and the Piano Trios, Op. 70.


Allegro ma non tanto: After presenting the noble theme alone, the cello rests on a low note while the piano continues to a cadenza (0:21). The music is then repeated with the roles reversed, the cello playing an ascending cadenza marked dolce. The mood is rudely broken (0:58) by a ferocious version of the theme in minor that quickly dissipates to allow for the entrance of the second subject (1:19), a beautiful combination of a rising scale (cello) against a falling arpeggio (piano). The cello and piano continue trading motifs, each repeating what the other has just played. A heroic closing theme (2:08) is the culmination of the section and a brief, contemplative recollection of the opening motif (2:50) leads to the repeat of the exposition.

The development (6:03) explores even more incredible worlds, turning mysterious (6:14), rhapsodic (6:25), stormy (6:40), soaring (7:01), and mystical (7:24) before reaching the recapitulation, where the cello plays the theme in its original form against triplet decorations in the piano. The coda (10:18) is thoughtful, and an extended chromatic buildup leads to a heroic statement of the theme. After some dreamy, languishing music almost dies away, Beethoven finishes this great movement with a surprise forte.

The extraordinary Scherzo: Allegro molto is the only appearance of a scherzo (meaning "joke") in all five sonatas. The music begins on the upbeat, and the 3-1 rhythm never ceases, even in the happier trio section (0:58). Although there are many clever exchanges, the incessant, manic energy leaves the distinct impression that this scherzo is no joke.

A short Adagio cantabile, a beautiful song for both instruments, relieves the nervousness of the scherzo. A moment of hesitation (1:20) leads to the quiet, almost surreptitious appearance of the final Allegro vivace. The theme, though happy like its predecessors in the earlier sonatas, is more lyrical and has greater emotional depth. It introduces a movement in which the composer employs virtuosity not as an end in itself, but as a means of creating internal excitement. The second subject (2:09) presents a difference of opinion between cello and piano, the cello singing a short phrase, the piano responding with percussive eighth-notes. The development section is mostly wild, with flying scales and pounding octaves. Approaching the recapitulation, Beethoven employs the basic materials of the movement: the rhythmic eighth-note accompaniment is combined with chromatic gropings for the main theme (5:05). The coda (6:40) is full of thoughtfulness and pathos. There is a senseof reflection amidst excitement, of Beethoven yearning to be understood yetwith satisfaction denied. After a series of repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to reach the home key (7:22), A major is finally attained, as the eighth-note melody accelerates to frenzied sixteenths. The ending is triumphant, as Beethoven hammers his point home, the cello repeating the first bar of the theme over and over again with the piano pounding out the eighth-note accompaniment ("I will not give up!").

The Late Sonatas of 1815
Sonatas Op. 102 Nos. 1 and 2

Composed: Vienna, July - August 1815, at the age of 44. They are the last
works Beethoven wrote for piano and a solo instrument.

Dedicated to: Countess Marie von Erdödy, a long-time patron of Beethoven and a good amateur pianist. Many of Beethoven's works were played at her house concerts, and she remained loyal to Beethoven in his later years when his music was losing its widespread public appeal.

First performance: summer, 1815, at the country estate of the countess. Joseph Linke was the cellist and the countess played the piano.

Published: 1817, Bonn.
Other works from this period: very few. These sonatas are regarded as Beethoven's only significant works from the year 1815.


Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102 No. 1

Beyond the heroic struggles of his middle period, and by this time almost completely deaf, Beethoven looked to the future in his last two cello sonatas. As in the A major sonata, the cello begins alone, but in an entirely new world. Whereas the A major theme is solid and firmly grounded in the cello's lower register, this one breathes an unearthly air, and the entire Andante seems to float somewhere beyond reality. The writing is contrapuntal, with independent voices of equal importance moving gently against each other. The thematic material is once again more complex: the decorative elements Beethoven once applied in his early period are now fused seamlessly into the larger structure. Long trills (1:20) function not merely as ornaments but as orchestration, adding inner intensity to the sound.

The demonic and anguished Allegro vivace (2:27) shatters the hypnotic serenity, Beethoven using every possible device to contrast with the previous music. Not only dynamics, rhythm and texture are changed but also tonality: the rest of the movement is no longer in the sonata's main key of C major but in the relative A minor.  (In the op. 5 sonatas, both introductions and subsequent movements were in the same key). This movement is written in a style new to Beethoven's cello works. In his late period, Beethoven drastically varied the length of his movements. Some of his shorter movements, while having all the structural requirements, are devoid of transitions - Beethoven simply stops writing one kind of music and begins writing another, as if manners and civility had ceased to matter. This happens near the outset of the Allegro where Beethoven uses a surprise F-sharp (2:45) to stop the motion dead in its tracks.

Out of nowhere the second subject appears - soothing, quiet, but only for a moment. Turmoil returns and the feisty movement is at the double bar before one realizes it (3:40). A very brief development section contains two ideas: a contrapuntal one (5:04) followed by a brief chorale, leading to the stormy recapitulation (5:31). An abrupt "get out and stay out!" ending concludes the movement. (An interesting comparison is the first movement of the Op. 95 Serioso" Quartet.)

Beethoven was fascinated by the stars and is reported to have composed in his head while contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Certainly the slow-motion Adagio evokes an other-worldly atmosphere. The movement's timeless feeling is gently punctuated by fleeting scales, as distant as comets. The mystery soon turns to brooding, with a turbulent modulation (0:34) moving through several keys before coming to an inconclusive halt. At this moment, a different kind of music emerges (1:17), deeply tender in a way that is unique to Beethoven. He then proceeds to create something unexpected and of inspired beauty: the sonata's opening theme reappears (1:55), but this time so warmly that its first incarnation seems only a dream. Phrases repeat over and over, as if asking for something in prayer. After this deeply confessional episode, the Allegro vivace begins in a humorous way (2:43), and we are off on a frisky and sometimes funny adventure, full of fantasy and invention. There are inexplicable starts and stops (3:36) which must have sounded very strange to listeners in Beethoven's time (as indeed they still do). There is a fugato passage (3:56) and, at the end, a brilliant coda that shows he had not lost interest in using virtuosic feats to create excitement. After a brief unwinding, a surprise finish recalls the end of the F major sonata.

Sonata in D major, Op. 102 No. 2 (1815)

This final sonata bears similarities to one of the composer's late string quartets, Op. 130. Both works employ baroque elements, such as the continuous sixteenth-note patterns found in Vivaldi and Bach. Beethoven's application of this style is powerful: in the opening Allegro con brio he uses the figurations like weapons, firing them off here and there, like a frightened soldier in the dark (0:33). (Schubert may well have heard and copied Beethoven's opening five notes in his "Death and the Maiden" quartet of 1826, which also includes baroque-style passage work). Although showing strength and confidence, this movement contains odd tentative moments, for example the vague and distracted-sounding transition to the second subject (0:40). In the development (3:13), there is feverish wandering, madness and confusion. No longer composing music that was easy to understand, Beethoven gradually came to be regarded as a mad genius.

The next movement, especially, offers an extraordinary contrast to the heavenliness of the previous sonata. As with the Op. 5 sonatas, Beethoven took a giant step forward with the second of the set. Indeed, the haunting Adagio con molto sentimento d'affetto is the most profound music in the entire cycle, the deathly opening evoking images of funerals. Beethoven uses thickly-written hords in the piano to create a muddy, rumbling sound (he could be called the first tone-painter of the piano). After the suspenseful opening, a dirge
begins (0:53), the pianist's left hand sounding like the slow falling of
horses' hooves. A new theme and a change to D major recall better times (2:27). The return of the opening music (4:29) is more complex harmonically. A skipping, dotted rhythm introduces a vision of a dance of death - the smiling skull, the skeletal horse, the black hood.

The transition to the finale (6:05) contains moments of supreme intimacy. The magical modulation to B-flat major (6:17) takes the listener to a place beyond the pain of all that preceded, seeing the light of heaven for a brief moment.

An unexpected dip downwards to C-sharp minor (7:14) brings back the sensation of a cold grave. However, Beethoven unexpectedly starts to play games (7:56), ntroducing the finale in much the same way as he did in his previous sonata. In the final movement, the Allegro fugato (9), Beethoven takes the piano and cello sonata to new realms. Reaching the pinnacle of integration, the two instruments join together to create a dancing fugue full of dissonance even in its cheerful sections. Completely baffling to listeners in Beethoven's own time, the movement still shocks the ear. This fugue, victorious in its conquest of a new language, looks forward to the music of the twentieth century, and is a fitting conclusion to Beethoven's towering literature for piano and cello.

The Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall • The Aspen Music Festival

Harris Hall is imbued with the spirit of the Aspen Music Festival and of Joan and Irving Harris. The Aspen Music Festival is emotionally charged, guided by administrators and faculty who are visionary and passionate. The Harris's are people whose devotion to culture is for them a way of life. The opportunity to record in this stimulating environment proved valuable beyond words.

When we first played in Harris Hall we immediately felt that it had the ideal acoustics for recording Beethoven. Built from wood, with a high ceiling, it has a resonance which is warm, clear and brilliant. The air at 8000 feet is crisp, even in the summer, and seems to contribute to the incisiveness of the sound. Frequently, we would arrive at the hall and set up just after a concert had concluded, the hall still buzzing with the excitement of a performance.
Recording at night when the world is quiet is our preference, and to emerge from the hall at 4am, bathed in the blinding, cool moonlight, was in itself an inspiring experience. We are indeed fortunate musicians to have had the best of all worlds in which to record the best of our music.

We often thought how much Beethoven would have loved Aspen. His well-documented walks in the country, during which so many musical ideas came to him, could easily have been made in the gorgeous mountains surrounding the village. What masterpieces this incredible setting might have inspired!
- David Finckel and Wu Han