SOMERVILLE — Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano propose an uneasy relationship, since the piano — particularly in its modern incarnation — tends to cover the cello’s low register. These pieces also record Beethoven’s evolution as a composer: He wrote the first two in 1796, the third in 1808, and the last two in 1815. In their performance of all five at Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center Sunday, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey and local pianist Lois Shapiro were tough, intelligent, and rewarding.
The conversation between cello and piano can be a relaxed one, as it generally is between Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, with the piano giving the cello ample room to express itself. Or it can be a confrontation, as it is on Wispelwey’s Channel Classics set of these sonatas with Dejan Lazic, where the cello has to fight for space. Shapiro, who plays in Triple Helix and is on the faculty at Wellesley College, was as forthright as Lazic, but she would back off when Wispelwey had something to say. Wispelwey, with his usual dry, puckering tone, engaged in a battle with his instrument, struggling to get everything he wanted from it. He rarely looked at Shapiro, and yet they were always on the same page.