Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)
This past Friday Avie Records released The Conquering Hero, a three-CD album of a “complete” account of the chamber music that Ludwig van Beethoven composed for cello and piano. “Complete” amounts to five sonatas written during different period’s of Beethoven’s life: the two Opus 5 sonatas in F major and G minor, respectively, the Opus 69 sonata in A major, and the two Opus 102 sonatas in C major and D Major, respectively. To these can be added three sets of variations: the twelve Opus 66 variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute, the twelve WoO 45 variations on “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 63 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, and the seven WoO 46 variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” also from K. 620.
Those that have followed my work for some time, including my “beat” for Examiner.com, know that I have encountered a more-than generous amount of performances of this music by an impressive number of cellists. Given my unabashed preference for “historical” recordings, the Praga Classical release of the recordings made by cellist Pablo Casals and pianist Rudolf Serkin over the course of sessions in the summer of 1952 and 1953 probably remain at the top of my list. Nevertheless, this new release is likely to have strong “local interest.”
The cellist is Jennifer Kloetzel, and I am sure I am far from the only one to remember the days when she was the cellist for the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), which gave its final recital on June 26, 2016 and released its final recording, also on Avie, early in January of 2017. Kloetzel left the Bay Area for the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she is now on the Music faculty. She recorded The Conquering Hero with pianist Robert Koenig, her UCSB colleague. (“For the record,” however, all the recording sessions took place at Skywalker Sound in Marin County in August and December of 2019 and in September of 2020. They may say that you can’t go home again, but you can still visit for recording purposes!)
All of the selections on the three CDs in this album are convincing and engaging. The collection also includes the Opus 17 sonata in F major, originally composed for horn, which serves as a somewhat informative “partner” to the Opus 5 sonatas. Nevertheless, as I gradually learned over the many years of following CSQ performances, “being in the presence” of the performance of chamber music almost always trumps listening to recordings. Indeed, where Kloetzel herself was concerned, the only thing better than all of those CSQ recitals was when she gave a solo “Salon” concert for San Francisco Performances, back when the Rex Hotel used to have the perfect space for such occasions.
Nevertheless, this new release provided a thoroughly engaging account of Beethoven’s music for those wondering what Kloetzel has been doing since CSQ disbanded; and I am definitely interested in where future recordings may lead her repertoire selections.