In an endurance test through a career-spanning collection of Beethoven’s sonatas – from 1796 to 1815 – Peter Wispelwey (cellist) and Lois Shapiro (pianist) commanded a relatively full house of classical concertgoers in the McConnell last Sunday afternoon. Despite the overall seniority of the audience, the program notes seem to be geared toward Simon’s Rock students. In an overweeningly bloated run-on sentence to rival anything from a Soph Sem paper, it begins with: “Many consider Beethoven to have been a visionary – along with Freud, Darwin, and Marx – who significantly shaped our sense of ourselves as ‘Human’: i.e., beings endowed with a rich and complex inner life, and a Will, capable of reflection as well as action in the world.” There follows a description of each piece, with intimate historical and structural anecdote, written by Shapiro herself. Her philosophical insights into the music are wonderfully perplexing; about Sonata in G min, Op. 5 No. 2, she writes, “The music is seemingly trying to come to terms with its somber destiny and, throughout, Beethoven exploits the protean potential of Classical sonata form to masterfully delineate a process of dramatic ‘becoming’.”
This level of emotional investment and excitement in the work is easily perceived in Shapiro and Wispelwey’s wonderfully subtle theatricality onstage. Wispelwey held growling low notes steadily sustained until the very end of his bow, dispelled at a touch with a jettison of brief, yipping high notes. He arched his neck, shook his head open-mouthed, and flung up his hands at the end of a particularly well-punctuating phrase. His partner, Shapiro, kept her eyes riveted to the music while the rest of her body gave little jolts, tensely crouched onto the piano bench, jerking and punctuating the phrases along with Wispelwey, both entranced and vibrating to the consternated moody indigestion of the great Beethoven.
There is a slow, heavy opium cloud of silence suspended between the music; hands fly up, arch, poise, and begin again. Arch, poise, retreat; the slow, liquid fall of arms retreating from the forefront of sound – the edge of the keys, the end of the bow. The end of a movement. The pair bow and smile, retreat offstage for a few moments, and there is that awkward circumstance of the page-turner left sitting alone onstage without any act to present to the audience. She smiles tensely and ducks behind a painted-black rampart on the stage until Wispelwey and Shapiro re-emerge. Wispelwey snaps a few hairs from his bow as needed, settles in, Shapiro nods to him, and they begin. This shuffle is played out between each sonata.
The program constituted the complete Beethoven sonatas, which are: Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796); Sonata No. 2 in G min, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796); Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815) [“ineffably luminous”, as Shapiro describes it]; Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815); and Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69 (1808). Shapiro’s characterization of the music truly cannot be matched for its enthusiasm and passion, and is a fitting epitaph to the concert: “What ensues – the sometimes grainy, even coarse, but ultimately radiant and exalted fugue that culminates the entire piece – is perhaps Beethoven’s music metaphor for a Phoenix rising up out of the ashes: the difficult and exacting, yet exhilarating, process of self-invention.”