Clemens Hagen and Kirill Gerstein: An insightful look at Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas!

Pianist Kirill Gerstein
Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve

Cellist Clemens Hagin;
Photo Credit: Uta Süsse- Krause 

Concerts consisting solely of Beethoven’s music can be found regularly in programs by string quartets, pianists, violinists and even symphony orchestras. Less common are such programs for the cello and piano combination. Yesterday afternoon at Koerner Hall, the Austrian cellist Clemens Hagen and Russian- born pianist Kirill Gerstein proved that Beethoven’s cello/piano combination is thoroughly rewarding on its own in a program exploring its vast potential. 


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​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON March 19th 2018

Both artists are at the peak of international careers and familiar to Toronto audiences. Hagen has performed with the Toronto Symphony while Gerstein has given a solo recital at Koerner Hall in the Toronto Summer Music Festival a few years back. And so, it was not by chance that there was a full house waiting for them this time. They are currently on a fast-paced tour of Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia and Rockport, part of a project to perform all of Beethoven’s chamber music.

Yesterday’s program was one which contrasted Beethoven’s music from his earliest days in Vienna to his final late period when he was completely deaf. The program opened with 7 Variations in E flat Major on “Bei Männem, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Magic Flute, WoO46. It is no wonder that Beethoven was familiar with the Mozart aria; it had been performed over 200 times in Vienna by the time Beethoven decided to create this light-hearted lyrical set of variations. Beethoven probably wrote it to perform with a student. It gives ample opportunity for virtuosity in the piano part. Gerstein not only showed all the digital dexterity required but together with Hagen, the music poured out of them like fine wine from the finest of crystal decanters. Hagen seemed to wrap his whole body around the 1698 Stradivarius as if cradling his beloved. Its sound was warm and powerful. Gerstein for his part had a lightness to his touch that balanced the cello magnificently.

What followed was the Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 5, no. 2, one of two early sonatas written in Berlin for the Crown Prince Friedrich William II of Prussia. It is said to have been influenced by Handel whose oratorio entitled Judas Maccabeus was performed while Beethoven was in Berlin. The opening adagio section of the first movement with its double-dotted rhythms seemed to corroborate this view. It was the dramatic intensity throughout the development of the first movement that struck me with its emotional strength. Beethoven was clearly leaving behind the music of Mozart and Haydn and pointing toward the big symphonies he had yet to write.

In the second half of the program, Hagen and Gerstein performed Beethoven’s last two sonatas, Cello Sonata no. 4 in C Major, op. 102, no. 1 and Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, op. 102, no. 2. It was the Andante and Adagio sections of these sonatas that gave me the most poignant moments. I was certainly very happy when Hagen paused and waited for complete silence in the hall before the melancholic opening solo of the first of the two. The long phrases of the cello complimented by the commentary on the piano were powerfully moving. The lyricism before ​the Allegro Vivace that followed was a calming release from the tension. In the Adagio of latter sonata, I was overcome by a spiritual and religious feeling. Both cello and piano took the hymn-like theme creating a very special sense of quietude that pervaded the movement leading up to a thrilling and virtuosic fugal finale.

This was a chamber music program like seldom heard with an intimacy and a complete mastery of Beethoven’s music. The audience demanded and indeed received an encore. Instead of Beethoven, however, Hagen and Gerstein switched things up by playing a slow movement of Brahms.

The final concert of Koerner Hall’s String Concert Series will feature the French cellist Gautier Capuçon with pianist Jérôme Ducrosand and will take place at  8pm on Saturday April 28th 2018 in Koerner Hall.