Beethoven and the Cello—A Chat with the Florestan Duo: Stefan Kartman and Jeannie Yu Print E-mail
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Written by Jerry Dubins   
Friday, 16 August 2013

Beethoven and the Cello—A Chat with the Florestan Duo: Stefan Kartman and Jeannie Yu

You can’t help but smile at Stefan Kartman’s slightly self-deprecating modesty. “I wanted to do everything like my teacher Harvey Shapiro,” he says, “including smoking Cuban cigars and generally trying to be the center of attention. Never mind that I couldn’t afford Cuban cigars any more than I deserved to be the center of attention. I was 18 years old at the time. Harvey was so inspiring that he changed my whole outlook for cello and music.”

Currently associate professor of cello and chamber music at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Dr. Kartman has served on the university faculties of Drake, Illinois Wesleyan, and Rutgers. An avid chamber music enthusiast, he has also served on the faculties of the Alfred University Summer Chamber Music Institute, the Mid-America Chamber Music Festival, the Troy Youth Chamber Music Institute, and the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, in addition to which he served as artistic director for the Milwaukee Chamber Music Festival.

Kartman is a graduate of Juilliard, Northwestern University, and Rutgers, and was awarded scholarships and assistantships with some of the most noted pedagogues and performers to claim the title of Artist/Teacher, including Harvey Shapiro, Zara Nelsova, and Bernard Greenhouse, the latter of Beaux Arts Trio fame. Kartman has performed widely, both as soloist and in chamber-music appearances with his piano playing partner, Jeannie Yu, who also happens to be his wife.

Yu is also an established, award-winning pianist who is equally at home in chamber music, and solo performances. She has performed as soloist with the Flint Symphony, Portland Symphony, Marina del Rey-Westchester Symphony, Des Moines Symphony, Des Moines Brandenburg Symphony, the Xiamen Symphony Orchestra (China), Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra, Festival City Symphony, and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. She is an avid chamber musician who is an associate member of the Rembrandt Chamber Players in Chicago. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard School and her doctorate from the Peabody Conservatory.

Kartman and Yu met in 1987 as students at Juilliard while studying Mendelssohn’s C-Minor Piano Trio in the studio of violinist Joseph Fuchs. Upon completion of their studies in 1989, Kartman and Yu formed the Florestan Duo, and have performed to critical acclaim in concert halls and educational institutions throughout the U.S., Europe, and the Far East. Recordings of their performances have been aired on WQXR in New York, WFMT in Chicago, and WOI in Ames, Iowa. Most recently, they have returned from critically acclaimed tours of Korea, Taiwan, Holland, Italy, and China, including solo performances with the Xiamen Symphony and recitals as a duo in Xiamen, Jinmei, Shanghai, Soest, and Verona.

My interview with Kartman and Yu was occasioned by their recent recording of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano, minus the composer’s cello transcription of the Horn Sonata he originally wrote for Giovanni Punto.

Jerry: I’ve always found it interesting that of Beethoven’s four earliest published opus numbers, three of them are chamber works that include a cello—the three piano trios of op. 1, the String Trio, op. 3, and the String Quintet, op. 4. And then, even before he thought of writing a duo sonata for violin and piano, he writes the two cello sonatas of op. 5. Of course, we know Beethoven had a strong incentive in the persons of Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, and the Berlin court’s cello-playing Duport brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis, but what’s amazing is how assured and advanced the composer’s writing for the cello is, considering these were his first sonatas of any kind for two instruments. One would never guess that these are such early works. What are your thoughts on this?

Stefan: Most of Beethoven’s output of chamber works from early to late include cello because, excepting solo piano and violin sonatas, all of the most popular chamber music genres of the day included cello. The Duport brothers were no doubt an opportunity Beethoven was willing to exploit, but he knew many fine musicians who were not necessarily cellists. I don’t imagine that was the root of his unusual choices in the publication of his earliest works. I think Beethoven was interested in pushing boundaries, but he was also very conscious of how he might be perceived by musicians, aristocracy, and intellectuals of his day. Nowadays, we make much of composers that lived at the end of his life and beyond, who “lived in the shadow of Beethoven,” but exhibited a certain reticence early in their careers to tackle the genres he dominated, like the string quartet and the symphony. We forget that he exhibited this same caution early in his career by choosing as his first published compositions piano trios and cello sonatas instead of string quartets or symphonies, which would undoubtedly be compared to those of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven was unusually savvy early in his career as to where and with what music he could make his mark. He was definitely determined not to be labeled as a talented upstart, so I think he really put everything he had into these early compositions, which is why they are, as you say, such assured and advanced examples of his work. I know I am going to get into trouble here, but bear with me for a moment. Neither Mozart nor Haydn had made a particularly spectacular contribution to the piano trio as a genre and none at all with cello sonatas. Yes, I know they both wrote keyboard trios. However, that particular genre was just emerging from its origins in the accompanied sonatas of their predecessors. Haydn was willing to bring large scale forms to the genre, but had seemingly little desire to separate the cello part from the left hand of the keyboard part as had been the tradition. Mozart, on the other hand, brought instrumental dialogue into the picture by occasionally allowing the cellist to play a few notes that weren’t doubled in other parts, but was perhaps reluctant to bring large scale form and innovation to a genre that was traditionally reserved for the parlor. It took Beethoven’s efforts to synthesize these two approaches and during the effort, I think he started to realize what the cello could bring to an ensemble with piano. As you say, it wasn’t very long before he was composing for that combination. Beethoven also composed two of the three sets of variations for piano and cello at around the same time as the op. 5 sonatas. He couldn’t possibly realize a set of variations worthy of his talent without exploring the technical and tonal possibilities the cello offered in such a combination, so the larger scale sonatas were a natural outgrowth of these experiments.

Jeannie: Stefan, is it possible that Beethoven simply had the good taste to like the sound of the cello? Let’s face it. One had to be good-natured to put up with Beethoven’s temper and we all know violinists are not typically “good-natured.” not to mention singers. Oh well! I’m just providing comic relief here since Stefan couldn’t have answered more eloquently and thoroughly.

Jerry: It has been noted that Beethoven’s five cello sonatas pretty much divide along the lines of the composer’s three phases or periods of activities. That observation holds true for the op. 5 sonatas, which belong to the early period, and to the op. 69 sonata, which falls comfortably into the middle period. But the two op. 102 sonatas don’t really fit the neat distribution. They date from 1815, which can, by some accounts, be seen as the final summing-up stage of the middle period, which includes works like the “Serioso” String Quartet, the “Archduke” Trio, and the “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata. I wonder, though about a correspondence for the cello sonatas other than one related to chronological periods. Is it just coincidence that all of the cello sonatas are written in very close proximity to one or more of the piano trios, with the trios separated from the sonatas by just a few opus numbers and a fairly short time interval? The op. 5 sonatas appear soon after the set of op. 1 piano trios. The op. 69 sonata appears practically simultaneously with the two op. 70 piano trios. And the op. 102 sonatas appear in the same year that the “Archduke” Trio, op. 97, is completed. Do you think there’s anything to this correspondence?

Stefan: Well, it’s interesting that you bring up the timing of the trios and the sonatas. Jeannie and I have performed all of the trios as well. I can’t say I have read any correspondence from Beethoven that would make me think that there was some special relationship other than the technical similarities I find in the cello parts of op. 70 and op. 69. Among other things, sudden bursts of virtuosity in the upper register seem to become more common from this period onward in Beethoven’s chamber works. Perhaps this is due to Beethoven’s experiences composing cello parts with Antonin Kraft and then Joseph Linke in mind, both of whom were reputed to have great command tonally and technically over the upper register of the instrument. Kraft, who Beethoven sometimes good naturedly referred to as “Die Alte Kräfte,” or “the old power,” was the cellist for whom Beethoven wrote the Triple Concerto and for whom Haydn wrote his Concerto in D Major. Kraft was also the cellist in the Schuppanzig Quartet, subsequently replaced by Linke in 1808, which is when Beethoven finished composition of the op. 69 Sonata. Linke was also the cellist for whom Beethoven composed the op. 70 trios and the op. 102 sonatas. From correspondence I’ve read, I believe that at this point in Beethoven’s life, he was more accustomed to personal relationships with his cellists than he was at the time he composed those early sonatas and variations. There is a marvelous letter from Beethoven to Linke as he is preparing to join Linke to prepare a performance of the op. 102/1 Sonata, in which Beethoven jokingly suggests joining Linke on the left bank of the river ( link being “left” in German). A great work like the op. 102/1 Sonata can mean something different to every person who hears it. It seemed from the first time I heard it that it was such an intimate and personal work. When Jeannie and I first played it more than 20 years ago, we were just getting to know each other and it had a tenderness and playfulness that so appealed to us. Beethoven was renewing his acquaintance with an old friend (and dedicatee of the sonata) Countess Erdödy. Completely different situation, but no less meaningful for us. My dad who is an avid audiophile, told us that he never really got the piece until he heard us play it. His comment is our greatest endorsement for the work we put into this recording.

Jeannie: Many people like to think of the op. 102 sonatas, the “Archduke” Trio, and the “Serioso” Quartet as transition works. It is clear from Beethoven’s manuscript, in which he titled op. 102/1 “Free Sonata,” that he might have considered it to be somewhat of a departure from earlier works. It also shares many characteristics of some of his later work including cyclic return of material, freedom of form, use of prolonged trills as a coloristic pedal point, and fugue in the last movements. Rather than group the op. 102 sonatas with the “Archduke” and “Serioso,” I would place them with the op. 101 Piano Sonata in A Major since op. 102/1 and the piano sonata share the same shape, including the cyclic return of material from the introduction of the first movement. As Tim Noonan states in the liner notes to our CD, it has been suggested that Beethoven’s op. 101 and op. 102 comprise a trilogy which historians have pointed to as the works that began Beethoven’s late period.

Jerry: A while back, I interviewed the members of the Alexander String Quartet in connection with their new remake of the Beethoven quartets, and they expressed the feeling that technically the early quartets were more difficult to play than the late ones. How does that square with your experience performing the cello sonatas?

Stefan: I will have to check with some friends of mine in professional string quartets on that one. I have performed early, middle, and late quartets and I never felt that to be the case. Technique is such a tricky word and can have many applications. As far as the technical elements of the sonatas go, there are passages in all of the sonatas that require great technical skill if one means to bring out all of the clarity of expression they deserve. All I can say is that we didn’t dream of attempting this project until we felt ready, and after living with these pieces since we met over 20 years ago, I felt we were. If we ever do record them again, perhaps we can make a more definitive statement on the technical difficulties of the early vs. the late sonatas.

Jeannie: I’ve always been in a quandary when describing what is technically difficult. “Technique” is a word that’s not easily defined, in my opinion. At this point, I would like to tell you a funny story that goes way back to when Stefan and I first started playing together at the Juilliard School. We sort of got thrown together by a mutual friend, a violinist, who wanted to play trios. We started working on Mendelssohn’s C-Minor Trio and quickly realized that I wanted to spend more time playing the scherzo movement and Stefan wanted to work in detail on the slow movement. We both wanted to show off our strengths rather than expose our weaknesses. I’m very happy to say that after all these years we’ve almost reversed our positions completely. I’m perfectly happy to play slower notes and Stefan finds excitement in playing faster notes. This is perhaps also what happened in the course of Beethoven’s compositional approach to the keyboard parts of the cello sonatas. In the early ones, he was out to prove what a great pianist he was, so he would take great delight in writing many notes per beat. I found in recording the op. 5 sonatas that I required quite a bit of stamina to get through large sections where I’m constantly playing fast notes, especially when playing on a heavy-actioned piano. By the time op. 69 comes around, the piano part still has remnants of that aspect but is more balanced out with lyrical aspects. Op. 102, on the other hand, is a completely different ball game. I remember when Stefan and I started looking at the beginning of the C-Major Sonata, op. 102/1, back when we were in college, I had no clue what I was supposed to do with my notes which were as sparse and melodic as the cello notes. That’s when I started to think, “Ah, if only I could play vibrato and as legato as a string player.” I wonder if that had anything to do with my marrying into a family of string players and falling in love with playing chamber music. Not to go off on a tangent, in trying to answer your question, there are different kinds of technical difficulties to each and every sonata, and I feel fortunate to have tackled them at one time. What a comprehensive pianistic education it is to be able to meet the challenge of playing the fugue of the last sonata as to play the fast scales and arpeggios and repeated chords of the first sonata.

Jerry: Your funny story about working on the Mendelssohn trio is perhaps even funnier than you realize, for I believe it was Aaron Copland who, in a lecture on the relationship between tempo and harmonic rhythm made his point by saying that all of Bruckner’s fast music is slow music played fast, while all of Mendelssohn’s slow music is fast music played slow. And then, when you mentioned the “heavy-actioned” piano, it reminded me of the fable fantastique Berlioz invented for his collection of essays titled “Evenings in the Orchestra.” He tells the story of a piano competition in which something like two-dozen contestants must play the first movement of Mendelssohn’s G-Minor Piano Concerto. For the grand event, famous piano maker, Érard, builds a magnificent new instrument. The first few contestants play the piece and leave the stage muttering that the keyboard is too tight. By the time the 12th or 13th contestant sits down to play, the keyboard has been broken in and is just right. As the contest nears the end, the players are heard to complain that now the keyboard is too loose. Finally, the last contestant sits down to play; but before his fingers touch the keys, the piano starts playing the piece by itself, and it can’t be stopped. Eventually, a hatchet has to be taken to Érard’s masterpiece; and as the chopped up remains are tossed out the window, they can be heard clattering Mendelssohn’s concerto on their way down to the courtyard below. Berlioz, who had a low opinion of music competitions and an even lower opinion of Mendelssohn, concludes his yarn with the pointed barb, “Well, at least Monsieur Mendelssohn can’t complain that his music isn’t played.” But this whole digression about fast notes and “heavy-actioned” keyboards does bring up a serious question I’d like to address to both of you, but especially to Jeannie, and that has to do with instruments. We know that Beethoven didn’t have at his disposal a Steinway D concert grand—though I suspect he imagined one in his head—nor were the cellos of his day fitted quite the way today’s modern cellos are. Could both of you speak to the technical writing for the piano and cello in these sonatas in relationship to the instruments Beethoven would have known at the time?

Jeannie: Thank you, Jerry, for this very funny story, although the sarcasm of Berlioz towards Mendelssohn’s music is not funny at all to me. I happen to love Mendelssohn’s music, and I couldn’t be happier that Stefan and I have a violinist we play with who also happens to love Mendelssohn and we just performed a fabulous Mendelssohn C Minor recently, the piece that started our odyssey. The thing about fast notes is that they have to add up to something more than just notes. Beethoven wrote in the early cello sonatas so many fast notes for the piano because he needed the accumulation of sound to achieve an intense emotional expression. The piano at that time indeed did not have the sustaining capability, so the only way to have a wave of sound was to write many small notes. As the cello plays a slow lyrical passage, the piano underneath provides the Sturm und Drang that he craved. But if the notes stand out so much as to sacrifice the primary material the effect is lost and everything is lost. I haven’t noticed it so much in the early cello sonatas, but in the early trios, so often have I come across overlapping of dynamic differences in the parts. One would end a phrase in Forte , whereas another line starts in Piano and most often we would start a discussion that never seems to go anywhere except to say in the end, well, “Let’s compromise and make the Forte s softer and Piano s louder.” I’m sure when Beethoven wrote these dynamic markings they did not cause such big differences that it was an issue. It’s times like that when I wish I had access to an instrument made in Beethoven’s day that would help enlighten us to his intentions. I’m also quite convinced that tempos would be considerably different playing on instruments from Beethoven’s times. His Adagio s, which usually come right before the coda of a movement, always seem to provide a certain interpretative concern as to how slow they should be.

Stefan: As I recall, we did perform the op. 102/1 on a 19th-century instrument during our doctoral studies at Rutgers. Though I didn’t have gut strings, my setup is also considerably looser than the typical modern setup in any case. I remember the experience of performing with that piano to be liberating at that time in our development as a duo. In particular, because of the roundness of the sound of that piano and the carryover of sound being somewhat more localized within registers, there was a greater separation of sound between the instruments, making our dialogue more varied in tone colors. The Mezzo dynamics in particular had many more possibilities of gradations and colors. In retrospect, I think of that performance as a vital part of our education, though at the time it just seemed like a novelty. Your question made me think of that experience and how it might have changed how we heard the sonatas. I know the sound of our recording is more personal and intimate than the more modern recordings I have heard, but it only now occurs to me that we must have had that sound in our ears much earlier.

Jerry: There are, of course, countless recordings of these sonatas. It’s hard to name a cellist who hasn’t recorded them, but I want to ask you in particular what your feelings are about those who have chosen to go the period-instrument route. The larger question is:What were the cellos like that Beethoven knew and wrote for? I think we pretty much know the answer to that about the pianos of the time, so this one’s for Stefan to address by himself.

Stefan: My cello was made by Guiseppe Guadagnini in 1781. It could very well be that it is an instrument that had early performances of these works. Of course the setup on cellos in those days was a bit different, but the instruments themselves are remarkably unchanged. The gut strings that would have been used back then were troublesome. They didn’t hold pitch very well and were generally thicker and less resonant than modern equivalents. From having played on gut strings and the synthetic imitations that we have today, I definitely prefer modern strings in every single respect. I imagine that cellists given the same choice in Beethoven’s time would have made the same choice. That said, I don’t like the percussive and laser-like penetrating qualities of tone and articulation that the steel and tungsten strings commonly used today provide. I think that kind of harshness would have been a foreign language to some of the tender and cantabile passages in the sonatas and variations. My teacher, Harvey Shapiro, was fond of a setup that favored more flexible strings in the low register and a relatively low bridge height. This had the effect of giving a rounder more woody-sounding buzz at the low end than one typically hears from steel and tungsten strings that are typically used today. A surprising side effect of these more flexible low strings is that they allow more freedom for the bridge to vibrate at higher frequencies giving the upper register a beautiful clear coloratura sound in the upper register. I use the same setup today that I did when I studied with him.

Jerry: Okay, this one is for you, Jeannie, and it’s a two-parter. Does Beethoven’s writing for the keyboard differ in any significant ways in these works from his approximately parallel solo piano sonatas, and if so, how? And then, how does his keyboard writing evolve from the earliest to the latest of his cello sonatas?

Jeannie: Actually, when I look at the op. 2s, it’s quite startling to me how they seem to be screaming to get out of the “box.” There is a sense of Beethoven saying, “I need to prove that I can write better than Haydn and Mozart.” For a long time he doesn’t break out of the traditional three/four movement sonata form. I’ve always been impressed at the two-movement structure of the op. 5s. Why no “slow” movement and no “scherzo”? And what’s funny is that he comes back to it in op. 69, although still no “slow” movement, just a slow introduction to the last movement. The first time he writes a substantial “slow” movement is in the last cello sonata, op. 102/2, and what a slow movement it is. It’s to die for! Without any set standard by the masters who came before, Beethoven feels less strained in the piano and cello sonatas. One can definitely sense a sort of competition between the cello and piano to see who could show the other one off. We all know how much Beethoven wanted to establish himself when he arrived in Vienna and he did it by sitting at the piano and improvising to the best of his abilities. This means he had to write some technically impressive materials, and the op. 5s certainly can attest to that. With the cello playing another line, he had access to more hands, so to speak, to play more impressive notes. As far as how the piano parts evolved from the earliest to the latest of the cello sonatas, I have alluded a little bit earlier in one of the questions as to how lyrical the piano parts seem. But it’s not just that the piano parts changed over the years, but the whole “person” and his ideas have developed into something more interactive. One realizes as one ages, that he can’t insist on being alone. It’s particularly evidenced by the late chamber music works where the separate parts seem more equal in importance. A sense of “true dialogue” is demanded in execution, the kind that only a group who has lived together for a while can understand, so to speak. The ease in which a conversation flows is the way a section melds into another in the late works. In other words, I think what I’m trying to get at is that Beethoven did not think of distinguishing separate entities adding to a whole but more as a whole with separate personalities as he wrote the latter cello sonatas.

Jerry: Have the two of you as a duo recorded any of the other cello and piano repertoire? What works would you like to record?

Stefan: We have started a CD with Chopin’s Polonaise brillante , his Sonata in G Minor, and the Rachmaninoff Sonata. We have finished the Chopin and plan to start the Rachmaninoff this summer. Depending on how busy we get with other things, hopefully we can release it by next summer.

Jeannie: Then, after that, we’ll have to do one with Debussy and possibly the two sonatas by Brahms. Many years back, I remember an astute comment that one of Stefan’s students made which went something like, “You play romantic music with a classical approach which seems to work particularly well for Debussy.” He didn’t mean that Debussy was from the “Romantic” period, but that the outward expressions are kept in check, and Debussy often gets misrepresented in ways where one loses the discipline of Debussy’s compositional approach. When it comes to what we, the Florestan Duo, want to put out there in the way of a unique contribution, we strive to stay true to reflecting an honest persona of our duo in which we present the truest interpretation of works which result from having studied and performed for many years. I must say, it’s an impressive thing to have been married for as long as we have (in this day and age), but also to have stayed together as a duo, even more impressive. Wouldn’t it be great to rerecord the Beethoven cello sonatas in another 20 years and compare the two? Stefan, don’t get too excited!!

BEETHOVEN Cello Sonatas 1–5. Variations on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder ein Weibchen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute Florestan Duo STEFAN KARTMAN (2 CDs: 141:04)

Counting only the nine sets of Beethoven’s cello works that I’ve reviewed positively and recommended, going back to 2005—Perényi/András Schiff (28:3), Tsang/Nel (30:1), Gruber/Erez (30:5), Meneses/Pressler (32:3), Bagratuni/Votapek (32:4), Bailey/Dinnerstein (33:2), Heinrich Schiff/Fellner (33:4), Schiefen/Perl (33:4), Müller-Schott/Hewitt (32:4;33:6)—it would be disingenuous, if not foolhardy, for me to claim that this latest survey by the Florestan Duo (Stefan Kartman and Jeannie Yu) supersedes all previous comers.

Beethoven left a legacy of five cello sonatas, three works in variations form, and actually a Sixth Sonata which he transcribed for cello himself from his Horn Sonata, op. 17. Almost no one includes the latter in their recorded sets. Of those listed above, only Miklós Perényi and András Schiff manage to fit all nine works onto their two-disc set. Guido Schiefen and Alfredo Perl include the horn sonata but not the three variations. Most performers, Kartman and Yu among them, give us the five numbered sonatas plus the three variations, but not the horn transcription.

The intimacy shared by husband and wife pays off handsomely for Kartman and Yu in these performances. There’s a sense of freedom that comes from the ability to intuit and anticipate each other’s instinctive responses to the music, something one hears throughout in the reflexive mirroring of phrasing and articulation. Kartman’s Guadagnini cello sings with a refined tone that is dynamically balanced across all four strings, but which has an especially sweet spot in the tenor clef up on the A string around an octave above middle C, where some instruments begin to sound a bit pinched and nasal. The sound Kartman produces is very pleasing to listen to. And of course, Yu partners him beautifully.

Unfortunately, I’d be remiss in my critical duties if I didn’t report that the players do not observe first movement exposition repeats in the two op. 5 sonatas. They do, however, observe them in op. 69 and the two op. 102 sonatas.

Kartman and Yu’s readings of Beethoven’s works for cello and piano may not be definitive, but these players have much to offer, and not just performances that are technically accomplished, which we have a right to expect in all cases. They are also interpretively insightful, musically thoughtful, and they perform with admirable attention to the scores (skipped op. 5 repeats notwithstanding). Very enjoyable too are Kartman and Yu’s readings of the three sets of variations, which they imbue with a sense of occasion that elevates them to the same level of “serious” music as the sonatas.

No recording date or venue is given for these self-produced CDs, but the sound is excellent—a bit bright and slightly favoring the cello, perhaps, but with a clear, warm, and open ambiance and no reverb. Well done, all around, and definitely recommended. Jerry Dubins

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )
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