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Beethoven: Complete Cello Sonatas / Ailbhe McDonagh, John O'Conor

Release Date: 05/07/2021
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30181
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven Performer:  Ailbhe Mcdonagh ,  John O'Conor Number of Discs: 2

Irish cellist Ailbhe McDonagh and world renowned Beethoven specialist John O'Conor celebrated Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year with this recording of his complete sonatas for cello and piano, which span his entire compositional career.

Album Credits:

Recorded August 2 - 6 2020 at St. Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Ireland.
Producer: Orla McDonagh
Engineer: Ben Rawlins

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Piano: Steinway Model D # 544371
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Photograph of Ailbhe McDonagh: Marshall Light Studio
Photograph of
Read more John O’Conor: Hugh O’Conor


The communicative power of string instruments is central to classical music and has been for centuries: orchestras, and even smaller ensembles, are typically dominated by string sections, with other instruments adding color and their own forms of expressiveness. So it can be a bit surprising to realize that in some forms, strings’ prominence and independence emerged rather late. Beethoven’s five cello sonatas are instructive in this respect – and also rather neatly encapsulate the three compositional periods into which the composer’s music is generally divided. Splendid new performances by Ailbhe McDonagh and John O’Conor, released on the Steinway & Sons label, show the similarities and differences among the five sonatas particularly clearly. The first sonatas, Op. 5, Nos. 1 and 2 – in F major and G minor, respectively – are essentially piano works with cello accompaniment. O’Conor strives to provide equality of interpretative standing to McDonagh, who certainly rises to the occasion when given the opportunity, but both these two-movement pieces use the cello more for tonal color (often having it double the left-hand piano part) than for thematic or structural independence. Each work has a long first movement, with a slow introduction and then a faster main section, followed by a rather peppy second movement. These sonatas are sonically somewhat overdone in this performance, with McDonagh’s Andrea Postacchini cello postdating Beethoven’s time and possessing a highly sumptuous sound, and with O’Conor performing on a sonorous modern Steinway quite different from the pianos of Beethoven’s time. The sonic beauty carries through to the third sonata, Op. 69 in A, where it is somewhat more appropriate. Here Beethoven, now in his “middle period,” composes independent material for the cello in much the same way as in his Triple Concerto of the same time frame. This means that cello and piano are much closer to equal partners than in the first two sonatas, with both having virtuosic as well as expressive opportunities throughout the three-movement work. Lasting nearly half an hour, this is the longest of the five sonatas, and in the hands of McDonagh and O’Conor, it is spun out with elegance and a kind of restrained passion that fit it very well. Equally effective, if not more so, are the fourth and fifth sonatas, Op. 102, Nos. 1 in C and 2 in D, which date to the beginning of Beethoven’s “late period” and use the instruments quite differently from the way they are used in the earlier sonatas. These are thoughtful and inward-focused works, despite their key signatures, and here there is genuine dialogue between the instruments, which often pick up and finish each other’s phrases as if ruminating on the same thoughts. The sonorous warmth of the cello and piano used here, even if not truly authentic (especially in the piano’s case), fits the emotional underpinnings of these works quite well. And McDonagh and O’Conor seem highly attuned (so to speak) both to the music and to each other: their balance is flawless, and their pacing has a natural quality that makes it sound as if these works could not possibly be played at any other tempo. The performances on this two-CD set, recorded during the unfortunately much-diminished celebration last year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, clearly show how much Beethoven still has to offer performers and listeners after two-and-a-half centuries.



With the exception of Wellington's Victory and his Symphony No. 6, not much of Beethoven's music can be found guilty of being influenced by external stimulus or impetus. One could argue that his music is absolute; music in the interest of music. Nor did he write music to test or display a musician's technical prowess or artistry. A case in point are these sonatas which he had published as Sonatas for Piano and Cello, and not as pieces for cello with piano accompaniment. They were conceived as works in sonata form, to be performed by this particular combination of musical instruments. They are, in true Beethoven fashion, musical arguments full of emotional drama and technical innovation, perfectly laid out and worked out from start to finish. Nothing more and nothing less.

It's obvious that Beethoven was a pianist as most of the musical narrative here defaults to that instrument, but there's a constant give and take between the cello and piano, with ideas bouncing back and forth and seamless interplay between the two. Although at times, especially in the slower Adagio movements, the cello assumes the leading role, like a singer with a piano accompanist. Cellist Ailbhe McDonagh and pianist John O'Conor coalesce perfectly, as if propelled by the music's undertow, and echo each other's expressive mien with dynamic balance, as if holding a cordial conversation. I've heard recordings of these sonatas in which the balance of power was off kilter, with one instrumentalist or the other gesticulating like a peacock, to disastrous effect.

Whilst Irish pianist John O'Conor, sometimes labeled as the "Poet of the Piano" and having many recordings under his belt, including the complete Piano Sonatas by Beethoven issued in the 1990s on the Telarc label (remember audiophile Telarc? - I would wager that almost everyone owns a copy of Telarc's 1812 Overture) brings years of experience and backbone to Beethoven's music, relative newcomer Irish cellist Ailbhe McDonagh brings spontaneity and fresh ears to the music, and both compliment each other's approach. As is the norm these days, two young musicians out to impress would play everything fast for the sake of velocity, and two veterans would make everything sound overly pedantic. But this ... this is music making that blends head and heart seamlessly.

-- Classical Music Sentinal


"Like buses, sets of Beethoven Cello Sonatas obviously come two at a time. And what wonderfully complementary sets these are!

There is a real freshness to Ailbhe McDonagh and John O'Conor in this expansive movement [the first movement of the F major, Op. 5/1]. Both of the Op. 5 Sonatas celebrate expansiveness and experimentation, as if Beethoven were reveling in the cello/piano combination. The slow introduction to the G minor, Op. 5/2 is if anything even more profound than that of its bedfellow. McDonagh and O'Conor are lighter on their feet, a complementary take that itself includes much joy. That light touch suits their finale well, too.

When we come to the Op. 69 Cello Sonata in A, the best-known of the set...McDonagh and O'Conor seem to me even more penetrative to Beethoven's deepest secrets in the opening... It is McDonagh and O'Conor, with their fleet feet, that captivate more in the second movement Allegro molto.

The last two Sonatas date from later: they were composed in 1815 (Op. 102) and there was a seven year gap between Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4. While still some way from the late period intensity of the late String Quartets, there is a mastery here that cannot be denied. ...Ailbhe and O'Conor take the opening of Op. 102/1 to whispered heights, and again later there is a most appealing sense of two-as-one. They also find more buoyant, almost dancing, rhythms." [Review of Beethoven Cello Sonata sets by Yo-Yo Ma/Emanuel Ax and Ailbhe McDonagh/John O'Connor]


The Irish duo of Ailbhe McDonagh and John O'Conor make their contributions to the Beethoven 250 celebrations with a double-album set of Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas 1-5, released in late May and available on all major music platforms.

O'Conor is an acknowledged Beethoven specialist, having won first prize in the International Beethoven Competition in Vienna in 1973, and having recorded the complete piano sonatas as well as the complete piano concertos. McDonagh, who as a child studied piano with O'Conor, is a great partner and clearly on the same level here, the duo being as one with every nuance in dynamics and tempi in outstanding performances.

Recorded in St. Peter's church in Drogheda, Ireland in August of last year, the sound is resonant and warm and the balance excellent.

-- The Whole Note


Here we have two Irish musicians. McDonagh is pictured as a lovely cellist who studied at the Eastman School and the Royal Irish Academy, where she teaches. She is also a composer. O'Conor has been praised for over 40 years for his piano playing, and has recorded all of Beethoven's piano works. He is Chair of the Piano Division of Shenandoah University in Virginia, Professor of Piano at the Glenn Gould School of the Toronto Conservatory, and has won many awards. These two fine musicians work together with clarity and love for the music. All repeats are observed except the lengthy second section of No. 2's first movement. That is one not often observed. They are recorded in clear and balanced sound. It is somewhat surprising that there are no liner notes, only two pages in English in the cover. I think we can live around that.

-- American Record Guide


This is an unusual release. One can’t argue with the album’s title, Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas, for it is that. But almost without exception, two-disc sets of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas are filled out with the three sets of variations for cello and piano the composer wrote on themes by Handel and Mozart. Here we have a two-disc set by an unfamiliar cellist, albeit with a familiar pianist, John O’Conor, which is minus the variations and in total timing some 30 minutes short of the capacity of disc one and 20 minutes short of the capacity of disc two. Surely, the variations could have been included.

The combination of a little-known Irish cellist-composer performing works of crucial importance to the literature that have been recorded by the world’s most renowned cellists, in conjunction with the absence of the variations, which have been accommodated comfortably on almost every two-disc set of the sonatas, is bound to make this an unattractive purchase for many. Its prospects might be improved if McDonagh had something really special to say in these works and/or that the set was being sold at a reduced price, which it seems to be, though not by much, at Amazon and other retailers. One other downside I should mention is that the four-way cardboard foldout that houses the discs contains no booklet or notes on the music of any sort, a further disincentive, especially to those, I should think, beyond Fanfare’s audience, who may be unfamiliar with these works. I’ve reviewed Steinway & Sons’ releases before, and this is not their usual practice.

You know that Ailbhe is a difficult name to pronounce when there are weblinks with instructions on how to pronounce it and other Irish names. They didn’t help much. One such link cooed in an alluring female voice, “Aislebe,” as in “I’ll be,” while another non-vocal link spelled out “Al-vah,” as in the Middle Eastern candy made from sesame paste, halvah. I’m no closer to knowing the actual pronunciation than I was when I started.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering, Ailbhe McDonagh is a she. Born in Dublin in 1982, she is a concert cellist and composer, her compositions having been published by Boosey & Hawkes, among others. She performs worldwide as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist, and teaches at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. According to her website, her handful of recordings look to be albums that cross over into the pop and Irish folk domains, though a couple of them, titled It’s a Piano Thing, Books 1 & 2, appear to be audio realizations of her published pedagogical books of the same title. She has published similar books, titled It’s a Cello Thing. She is also a member of the Ficino Ensemble and the crossover traditional Irish music group Trio Elatha, where she plays traditional Irish music on the cello. How one goes from the above to recording Beethoven’s cello sonatas without passing “go” strikes me as a rather remarkable thing. But other artists have been known to take equally daring leaps. Defying my expectations, McDonagh plays with flawless technique, faultless intonation, and a strong yet meltingly sweet tone on her Andrea Postacchini cello. Her partner, John O’Conor comes to the cello sonatas with impeccable Beethoven credentials, having recorded a cycle of the composer’s complete piano sonatas, piano concertos, and Diabelli Variations.

This being a production of Steinway & Sons, it would have been an embarrassment verging on scandal, not to mention a contract violation, if O’Conor had chosen to play a Fazioli piano for these recordings instead of the Steinway Model D, #544371 that he does. And what a magnificent machine it is, responding brightly, alertly, and with gorgeous tone to O’Conor’s every touch. It almost seems to be alive, anticipating the pianist’s every move. And it partners perfectly with McDonagh’s cello.

While I’m a bit hesitant to recommend this due to the disadvantages noted above, I found myself listening with ever increasing pleasure to the playing of these two artists and to the richness of the recorded sound that captures them so well in the setting of St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland. If not for the aforementioned drawbacks, which are not attributable to the artists’ playing, this would have earned my five-star recommendation. 

-- Fanfare Read less