It’s Never Too Late for Beethoven: An Interview with Cellist Toke Møldrup, by Jerry Dubins
I see that back in our May-June 2018 issue (41:5), I reviewed your release of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, which I found exceptionally absorbing—spellbinding, really—for both the beauty of your playing and your penetrating insight into the music. But if that wasn’t enough, a coda to the set was added in the form of the Suite No. 1 in a version realized as a Baroque trio sonata, largely the work of Viggo Mangor, which sounded as convincing as if Bach had written it himself. Here and now you’ve turned your attention to Beethoven and his sonatas and variations works for cello and piano. The two-disc set has only just arrived for our interview and review in the March-April 2021 issue (44:4), three months past the end of festivities for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth year, but you recorded the set in 2019, and as the above interview title makes clear, “It’s never too late for Beethoven.” Now, it would be a silly question to ask what brought you to Beethoven’s cello sonatas. That would be like asking what brought Mohammed to the mountain. Sooner or later, all cellists pay homage to what are arguably the first of the really important and consequential mainstream sonatas composed for cello and piano. What’s extraordinary is how early in Beethoven’s career the first two of them were written, two years earlier than his first three sonatas for violin and piano. So, let me begin by asking you to characterize the first two cello sonatas, and compare and contrast them to the Third Sonata, which dates from the composer’s middle period, and the last two sonatas, which come at the tail end of his middle period and stand on the threshold of his late period.
First of all, thank you so much for the kind words on my Bach recording, and also for the elaborate review that you gave back in 2018. And yes, this Beethoven recording was intended to be released early in the anniversary year, but the pandemic closed down Italy, where Aulicus Classics is based, so everything was unfortunately delayed.
I’m applauding your headline; it is true on so many levels! And yes, as a cellist, or a musician in general, “the Mountain”—Beethoven’s entire production—does come to you all by itself. It is inevitable, and many musicians seem to have a good understanding of Beethoven for that reason. In my case, the understanding was particularly formed by playing and recording many of the quartets with the Paizo Quartet (1999–2009), the trios that I played a lot with the Danish Piano Trio (2015–20), and the symphonies that I recorded with the Copenhagen Philharmonic and Lan Shui (2010–20). As a result, during the last 20 years I have played the sonatas and variations inspired and practically experienced from Beethoven’s other works involving the cello.
In particular the role of the cello in the string quartets showed me an entrance to the piano/cello works. Here, we, the cellists, are second in line, which is even indicated in the titles: “for piano and cello,” not the other way around as it becomes customary in cello/piano works later in the 19th century. But obviously, we move virtuoso-like in and out of that role, as if the piano represents three good colleagues in a string quartet. We deliver the bass line, accompaniment, the melody, and many subtle variations of that.
Let’s return to your question about the first two sonatas (and the three early sets of variations) and how they compare to the Sonata, op. 69, and the two op. 102 Sonatas. The first two sonatas and the three sets of variations are the closest we get to cello works by Mozart, if he had written any. We cellists are always imagining how sonatas by Mozart would have sounded on our instrument, and with these first two sonatas by Beethoven, I think we get an idea of how they could have sounded. Beethoven’s first two cello sonatas were composed around five years after the early death of Mozart, by the very composer who was expected and later applauded as the successor to Mozart in Vienna. The “Mozart” variations on two themes from the Magic Flute show a musical affinity for Mozart, so I think it’s fair to say that Beethoven was influenced by Mozart. How could he not be? Now, we all wonder how Mozart would have developed had he not died so young. How would a late cello sonata in F Major have sounded? Would a layman have had a hard time differentiating between Mozart and Beethoven’s F-Major sonata? In any case, what I think a performer should look here to seek the musical conventions at this time. How do performers transfer the printed notes to their instrument, and what is their background? Exciting questions!
Then, I always start out reflecting on what key the music is written in. Historically, composers have been very specific about this. As summed up by the Canadian musicologist Rita Steblin’s impressive work, A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, every key has its individual character, and Steblin articulates how this knowledge has been important to all composers of that time. To my modern-tuning, perfect-pitch ear, her final list of key characters fits more or less with my own personal idea of the keys. To me, the key is literally the key to start working with a classical piece of music. In the example of these two sonatas, it makes a lot of sense to me.
To me, the F-Major Sonata (with Steblin, “Complaisance and calm”) is a perfect example of how the description of the key matches with the basic character of the piece. The entire slow opening, and the first theme of the Allegro, are wonderfully calming, yet content. The second movement opens with a true example of a complaisant theme. In the Second Sonata, we set out in grave darkness which will eventually move to a bright G Major, which happens to be the key of gentle and peaceful emotions (Steblin).
It was a convention of the 17th- and 18th-century composers to end minor-key movements in the major. But the way Beethoven turns minor into major at the end of the first movement of the G-Minor Sonata is, for me, unmistakably a stamp of his. I think it gives us a hint of what’s to come in his later works—I’m thinking here about the end of the String Quartet in C Minor, op. 18/4, the end of the Fifth Symphony, and the end of the last piano sonata, op. 111, and the very end of the last movement of the C♯-Minor Quartet, op. 131. You might call me a melancholic, but when Beethoven changes minor to major, I think he is often much stronger than other composers. His way of letting life, light, and heaven overcome death, darkness, and despair is revolutionary, not in any way conventional. Even when it is just for a brief second, he leaves us with the impression that we can overcome anything. For me, few can compete with him there.
The Rondo in the Sonata No. 2 is a second-to-none show-off in the piano part, and we, the cellists, just enjoy how the material unfolds, although a couple of passages turn out to be surprisingly difficult and give us some stress here and there. History tells us that Beethoven played them “several times” at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II together with French master cellist Jean-Louis Duport. I’m imagining how the heat was turned on at these performances. Surely the young Beethoven wouldn’t miss a chance to impress the King of Prussia! I think that for both of these works you need a world-class pianist with a surplus of control, ensuring the virtuosic spark needed to try and match the first performances. The individual voice of each sonata is very strong, and it is difficult to compare them directly with Beethoven’s other chamber music, symphonies, and concertos. The exception might be the “Spring” Violin Sonata in F Major, and the Third Cello Sonata in A Major.
In the development section of the A-Major Sonata (1808), Beethoven brilliantly borrows the theme from one of the famous arias in Bach’s St. John Passion, “Es ist vollbracht,” and in a sense it really is fulfilled! This entire sonata is a veritable world hit, probably one of Beethoven’s most popular works together with the Violin Concerto, the “Archduke” and “Ghost” Trios, and the “Pastoral” Symphony, right after which it was written.
Here, the cello immediately takes a more dominant role, introducing some of the most recognized, Classical-theme formulations. What a joy to be a cellist here! The role distribution is simpler in this sonata compared to the first two. It is easier to establish what is what, so to say. Technically, we have a lot more to do, and it is clear that Beethoven during the in-between period has reached a whole other understanding of string instruments. It is for me the most idiomatic of the sonatas; dare I say that I think he finds his way to the soul of the cello in this sonata.
Obviously, as Beethoven’s style and manner of musical speech evolved over time, so too did the technical demands he made on the instruments he wrote for. His later works aren’t necessarily more difficult in a virtuosic sense—a member of the Alexander String Quartet opined that Beethoven’s early quartets are actually physically more difficult to play than his late quartets, as contrary as that may seem when we listen to them—but how does that comport with your understanding of the composer’s writing for the cello, and for the piano as well, for that also plays a crucial role in the quite evident change in musical content and means of expression?
I agree with the Alexanders. As I mentioned above, I feel that in op. 69 and onwards Beethoven finds something natural in his writing for the cello. Everything fits the hands better, and the instrument simply sounds better by itself here. I have had the same experience with students who seem to have greater technically difficulties figuring out the first two sonatas than the last three. It is fair to say that the musical material and form have matured, and we don’t have to seek for “solutions” to make things work on an ideal level. We just try to do exactly what he has written, and everything seems to work on a high level already. In the early works you have to be more creative in a sense. And sometimes it can be really difficult to be creative, especially when you have to enter the minds of 250-year-old-plus performers. But it is a very healthy process, and as a matter of fact, I am currently doing an artistic research project on that subject.
How has the cello itself evolved as an instrument since Beethoven composed these works? The assumption is that you are playing on a cello the specs and setup of which would have differed somewhat from the cello Beethoven would have known. Certainly, that was true of the piano as well, though the modifications and improvements the piano underwent in the decades after Beethoven were surely more extensive and far-reaching than anything string instruments were subjected to. But the question is, given your knowledge of the cello then and now, to what extent have you altered your approach to fingering, bowing, phrasing, and vibrato in the “now” to accommodate the “then”?
I’m happy you take up this issue, since it is something that used to keep me awake all night. On this recording I’m using my 1697 David Tecchler cello in its usual, beautiful shape. As with many of my colleagues, I have done experiments with different setups, gut strings, Baroque bows, and so on. I have great interest in listening to what others are getting out of their efforts in this field—great examples are Pieter Wispelwey’s and Steven Isserlis’s Baroque/Classical recordings, and of course wonderful period ensembles such as the Concerto Copenhagen. In my own music making, however, I have realized that changing the frame of my instrument for Baroque/Classical doesn’t pay off artistically the way I would want it to. I don’t feel that it brings me to a better place, so to speak. To me the cello, or any musical instrument, is really “an instrument,” a wonderful machine, that we use to channel our understanding of the composer’s works. And this has turned out to be the most important for me.
On YouTube there is a sequence of the late Danish bassoonist Peter Bastian playing a small Balkan-style improvisation, one of the most musical moments I can recall. And what is his instrument here? A straw! Given his extraordinary musicianship I think he could have played any piece of music on that straw, and it would still have made great sense.
So, in short, I feel very good about the modern setup for this recording, and that goes for the Fazioli top model piano as well. I think it is perfectly possible to channel our understanding of Beethoven’s works through those instruments.
Maybe some would call my approach to the matters you mentioned here pretty conservative. It’s all based on good old, grounded cello technique, as described vividly by Navarra, Feulliard, Grützmacher, and other great masters, such as my teachers, who were able to explain music-making on the cello down to the smallest detail. Lessons with the Alban Berg Quartet pointed me in the direction of Leopold Mozart’s treatise on violin playing, where most things about playing music around the time of his son are explained.
A core example of the thinking I use when playing Beethoven is from his String Quartet in C Minor, op. 18/4. In bar two of the first movement, according to the Classical school and L. Mozart, we should release tension right here. But Beethoven boldly writes a sforzando instead, accenting the release instead of just letting the musician perform it conventionally. He is creating a small revolution right there, one of many in his oeuvre.
The key message of this example is understanding the school, then understanding when Beethoven breaks the rules, and then making an art out of playing the 100 percent criminal wrongdoing, as if it was a new school! If fingering, bowing, phrasing, and vibrato follow this scheme, we are already quite far. I am constantly asking myself how to avoid unintended accents, glissandos, crescendos, diminuendos, portato, etc. But this approach is, however wonderful, quite conventional, or normal in a sense, and I think most musicians out there approach Classical/Classical Romantic music this way. But here is the special thing about it: It feels incredibly modern there on stage when you are right in the middle of it. For me, this is the approach that I finally feel good about, and it keeps the music alive for me.
As I’m sure you know, the five numbered sonatas and the three sets of variations are not the sum total of the works Beethoven composed for cello and piano. There’s an early sonata for horn, composed around the same time (1800) as the first three violin sonatas. It was written for the virtuoso hornist Giovanni Punto and premiered by him with Beethoven at the piano on April 18 of that year. As was customary practice at the time, the sonata was printed in versions for violin and for flute, probably made by the publisher, for the purpose of potentially increasing sales. But Beethoven himself is believed to have had a hand in the edition that was published as Sonate pour le Forte-Piano avec un Cor ou Violoncelle. Only two or three cellists I’m aware of have included the “Punto” Sonata in their integral Beethoven cello works surveys. Why is that?
It’s a good question, although relatively simple to answer. I think the rest of us just like it less! At least that’s the case from my angle. I love the idea of an entire set of a composer’s works on a disc, but should a piece fall in the category “OK to leave out and not as good as the other pieces in my opinion,” I am fine with leaving it out. I never felt that this sonata had a particular need to be played on the cello. Changing the instrument is not making it better. A counter-example is the Brahms G-Major Violin Sonata, op. 78, which is believed by some to have been transcribed and transposed to D Major by Brahms himself for his cellist friend Robert Hausmann. To me, this transcription works almost better than the already fantastic original. Maybe an eager young cellist in Beethoven’s surrounding begged him to do the transcription of the “Punto” Horn Sonata? I would probably have done just that if I had been around at that time.
Has your association with pianist Yaron Kohlberg been a long one? How and where did you first meet, and when did you decide to perform together as a cello and piano duo? Are the Beethoven sonatas your first recording together?
We met at the 2008 Tivoli Piano Competition here in Copenhagen. I was principal cellist of the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic already back then, and Yaron had made it to the finals of that competition. He has been a finalist and prizewinner at most competitions he joined, including the Cleveland competition of which he is now the president. Before the general rehearsal I found him near my chair, sitting on the edge of the stage and swinging his legs, like Pierrot and the Moon, just adorable! I went to meet him, and we talked about competition stress, and how it was just a lot of pressure. He asked me to make funny faces at him during the performance, just to keep focus on the music, not the stress, and so I did, and he’d return some of them. He played a fantastic Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, and my biggest wish was just to sit down with this guy and play sonatas. Luckily, he stayed in town for a few days, so we had time for playing through the cello/piano repertoire together. And we have continued to do that ever since at concerts in Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, and the U.S. I have learned so much from him—especially about what kind of level you show up with at first rehearsal. Yaron, being this incredibly versatile and genius musician, is always overly prepared and will not play a single mistake in rehearsals or concerts. As a result, I decided early on to make sure to know everything by heart before the first rehearsals. This way I thought I could keep up with his brilliantness, and maybe even challenge him a little! Occasionally I’d be forgetting big chunks of notes, but we would have such a laugh about that!
Our first disc together was Passionate from 2011. We chose that name because we were both very … passionate about everything. Alas, on the front cover I jump into the water backwards holding my cello, on the back cover, I’ve jumped up on Yaron’s back and we both look puzzled as if thinking: What the … happened??? The disc contains works from different 20th-century composers: Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ginastera, etc. Lots of action on that recording!
Your biography indicates that you have been performing now for two decades across Europe and in the U.S., South America, Australia, Asia, and Middle East, and that you have also taken a special interest in modern repertoire for your instrument, having premiered a number of contemporary cello works, among which was the European premiere of the cello concerto by John Williams. What are some of the other works you’ve premiered, and have you collaborated directly with any of their composers?
Earlier this year we released the disc Cello Libris with Geoffrey Gordon’s works for cello on the BIS label, containing the cello concerto with the Copenhagen Philharmonic and Lan Shui; FATHOMS for cello and piano with New York pianist Steven Beck; and Ode to a Nightingale with the Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir. All three works were written for me and premiered in Copenhagen and New York at Weill Recital Hall. Geoffrey and I had a great contact around the creation of the pieces, which are all based on major literary works: Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Other collaborations include Christian Winther Christensen’s highly experimental Concerto for Cello and Accordion, titled Licht Tanzt uns freulich hier, Bent Sørensen’s Second Trio, Per Nørgård’s Libra for cello and guitar, as well as Simon Steen-Andersen’s Four Petitesses for solo cello. At the moment, I am working closely together with Ejnar Kanding on a new solo piece for solo cello and 48 speakers(!) to be premiered and recorded at the fabulous rock venue, the Pump House, in the spring.
Working together with living composers on their works is something that I always try to establish, just as Jean-Luis Duport would benefit from his work with Beethoven.
I note too that until recently you served as principal cellist in the Copenhagen Philharmonic, but that you gave up that position due to your busy schedule and in order to concentrate on your solo performing career and also your teaching duties at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. What advice do you have for students who are thinking of pursuing careers as orchestral players, as members of a string quartet or other chamber ensemble, or even as concert cellists?
Looking around to see where all of my fellow students from the 1990s and early 2000s are at today, I’m amazed to see what exciting careers they seem to have. Many hold teaching and orchestra positions, being an important part of the local or (inter)national culture life. A few have actual concert careers. But I am also seeing quite a few who are combining their music education with something else, and who are now working part or full-time in other creative fields. I was surprised to learn that an old classmate, a violist, had become the director of Mercedes-Benz! In Denmark, where education is free, this could be seen as a waste of the state’s money, but I like to see it as proof that musicians are able to understand structures across professional competence, and being able to give an unconventional input to other businesses.
We have learned how to learn, and this knowledge is becoming increasingly important in a world that changes every five minutes. So, first of all I would advise students to practice and study manically in order to pursue their dreams, because dreams are a must-have in this business! If everything fails, the advice is to change the dream…. And then, if I may, let’s applaud fellow students and colleagues in their attempt to pursue their dreams. I can really recommend this; it makes for strong circles, locally, nationally, worldwide.
What can we expect next from Toke Møldrup? Recording projects planned or currently in progress? What are the three cello concertos you would most like to record? Any interest in conducting?
As it looks right now, you can expect fewer concerts and more CDs. The world pandemic has left some time for other projects, and as we speak, I am making the last corrections for my next solo album, featuring works by Nørgård, Britten, and Kodály, which will be out during the spring of 2021. Meanwhile, together with Viggo Mangor, we are forming a new five-string cello repertoire for my next CD with the humble working title, New Baroque Masterpieces. It will contain new arrangements of music by Baroque composers. The album will be part of my two-year artistic research project at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, From specialization to general practice—HIPP in modern instrumental practice. The project examines how insights from HIPP (Historically Informed Performance Practice) can inspire and enrich a modern performance practice. And there are many insights. One of them is a more fluent relation to figured bass playing, which is why I am spending a good deal of time at the keyboard these days.
In the spring I will be recording a CD of Danish music with accordion star Bjarke Mogensen, and then I’m lining up an EP with fascinating pianist Tanja Zapolski, also to be recorded in the spring. Other projects include my annual masterclass at the island of Bornholm, Denmark, as well as the creation of a brand-new music festival, details not yet to be revealed.
BEETHOVEN Cello Sonatas Nos. 1–5. 7 Variations on Mozart’s “Bei Männern”. 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”. 12 Variations on “See the Conquering Hero Comes” • Toke Møldrup (vc); Yaron Kohlberg (pn) • AULICUS 0035 (2 CDs: 138:36)
It’s time for a bit of a reckoning. Recordings of Beethoven’s cello sonatas are not now, nor have they ever been, in short supply. Checking the Fanfare Archive, I find that I, myself, have reviewed no fewer than 20 of them, most of which received strong endorsements and recommendations. Five of those sets—three of which were never reviewed here (for the details, see my review of the sonatas with Julius Berger in 44:4)—contained the seldom recorded cello transcription of the “Punto” Horn Sonata, mentioned above in my interview with Møldrup. A number of other sets include just the five numbered sonatas and nothing else. Many, as here, also offer, along with the five sonatas, the three sets of variations, two on arias from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and one on a chorus from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus.
That said, as Toke made clear in our interview, his performances with pianist Yaron Kohlberg are thoroughly modern in a way that neither adopts period practices in an attempt to simulate the sound of period instruments, nor indulges in the excesses of Romanticized exaggerations of phrasing through misplaced accents, unwritten crescendos and diminuendos, or unstylish glissandos and portato bowing. Instead, Toke’s approach is one of rapt attention to the extended line and to the lyrical element that informs the music. He opens the throat of his 1697 David Tecchler cello, with modern setup, and allows it to sing its heart out. For sheer bounty and generosity of tone, Møldrup and Kohlberg’s Beethoven cello works may be the most beautiful yet. Kohlberg’s Fazioli 278 (2019) piano—an instrument whose tonal luster I’ve commented on before in recordings by Angela Hewitt—makes the perfect partner for Møldrup’s cello.
I wouldn’t want to leave the reader with the impression, however, that Toke’s playing is all song and no dance. If it’s dancing you want, listen to the naughty gnomes at mischievous, just-this-side-of-malign play in the Scherzo of the Third Sonata, the humorous hijinks in the concluding Allegro vivace of the Fourth Sonata, and the fugal fun and games in the finale of the Fifth Sonata, the latter well on its way to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
In a field overflowing with the good, the better, and the already best, Toke Møldrup and Yaron Kohlberg’s Beethoven cello sonatas and “Mozart” variations easily rise to the top of the best of the best category. Theirs are memorable performances more than worthy of a permanent place on everyone’s shelf. Jerry Dubins