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.
They were lighthearted in the first two sonatas, where themes show up in unexpected keys or vanish altogether. In the allegro of No. 1, Shapiro would set them galloping off in one direction, then another; in the rondo, they seemed to be discussing what game to play. No. 2 found Wispelwey in a more sober vein, sighing in the andante sostenuto and experiencing a brief panic attack in the allegro, but here again the rondo was full of fun, as he and Shapiro strove to outdo each other.
Sonatas Nos. 4 and 5 are darker and knottier, the two instruments like an anguished couple in an Ingmar Bergman film. In No. 4, a dreamy andante turned into a hysterical and nightmarish allegro; No. 5 started with squabbling before a hymn-like truce was declared and cello and piano freed themselves by breaking out of D minor into D major. Both sonatas resolved into exhilarating fugal interplay, but Wispelwey and Shapiro gave full voice to the tortured and ugly in Beethoven’s writing.
They ended with No. 3, where cello and piano learn to listen to each other and construct themes and develop them together. The opening allegro, with its thunder and lightning and reference to “Es ist vollbracht” from Bach’s “St. John Passion,” led to a jagged, darting A-minor scherzo with a spooky pizzicato conclusion before the 17-bar E-major andante cantabile restored calm. In the allegro finale, once again, they seemed to be making it all up as they went along.