Neither Haydn nor Mozart wrote a sonata for cello and piano, which makes Beethoven’s five sonatas stand out in sharp relief. Beethoven did not need any encouragement to do things his own way, but here he had no precedents to distract him from inventing everything for himself. The biggest problem in this untried medium was one of balance for the limited sustaining power of the late-eighteenth-century Viennese piano was no match for the powerful singing voice of the cello’s middle register. Beethoven’s solution in the early sonatas was to deny the cello the opportunity to indulge its cantabile potential by not writing any slow movements, limiting his Adagio writing to extended slow introductions. Of course with the advent of the modern grand piano, Beethoven’s balance problem was turned on its head and the cello has become the weaker of the two instruments, itself in danger of being swamped by the piano.
In the summer of 1796 Beethoven went on a tour to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin with his music- loving patron, Prince Lichnowsky, a tour that exactly mirrored a trip Mozart had made in 1789, also in the company of Lichnowsky. Thus Beethoven came to meet the same cello-playing King of Prussia for whom Mozart had written the so-called Prussian Quartets with their extravagant cello parts. So it is undoubtedly thanks to Friedrich Wilhelm II that Beethoven turned his attention at this time to the cello as a solo instrument, also composing for it three sets of variations on themes by Mozart and Handel.
The G minor Sonata opens with a substantial Adagio that takes the form of a recitative and aria with considerable dramatic effect. The lively Allegro follows without a break and carries us along on the strength of its two themes. The concluding Rondo is much more light-hearted with a witty main theme with several contrasting episodes and much virtuoso display by both instruments.