Brahms's cello sonatas
Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2
Mstislav Rostropovich (vc) Rudolf Serkin (pf)
DG 410 510-2GH (58‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Our younger generation of cello soloists seems to favour a tone production which balances a refined upper range with a middle and lower register that’s strong and well focused, rather than expansively rich and resonant. Readers will not need to be told that Rostropovich’s solo image is definitely not of this ilk: his musical personality is in every sense larger than life and in this magnificent coupling of the cello sonatas, in partnership with Rudolf Serkin, the very forward balance of the recording exaggerates this impression in the most vivid way. By comparison the piano image – to the right of and behind the cello – is more reticent in timbre and seldom matches Rostropovich’s rich flood of sound, which isn’t, of course, to suggest that Serkin fails to project the music, merely that the microphone placing makes Rostropovich very much the dominating artist. This passionately warm-hearted and ripely Brahmsian music-making almost overwhelms the listener in its sheer impact. But with playing of this calibre, with both artists wonderfully attuned to each other’s responses, every nuance tells and Brahms’s bold melodic lines soar out from the speakers to capture the imagination, and provide an enthralling musical experience in each and every work.
Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2
Coupled with Dvorák: Silent Woods, Op 68 No 5. Rondo, Op 94 Suk: Ballade,
Op 3 No 1. Serenade, Op 3 No 2
Steven Isserlis (vc) Stephen Hough (pf)
Hyperion CDA67529 (73’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
In 1984 Steven Isserlis made excellent recordings for Hyperion of the Brahms sonatas with Peter Evans; this time he’s added some substantial extra items – the two Suk pieces, wonderfully played, are particularly welcome. The new recording is fuller in sound and more realistic; Stephen Hough’s commanding playing of Brahms’s ‘big’ piano parts could, one feels, overpower the cello but, thanks to his sensitivity, this never happens.
In the sonatas, the timings are in nearly every case slightly shorter, due not to any very different tempi but because the music now flows more easily, with less sense of effort. Some listeners may miss the intensity of Evans’s involvement with the music but the new versions have a wonderful sense of line, and Hough’s more detached approach comes with vivid characterisation – seen in the sinister colours of No 2’s Allegro passionato, for example, or the limpid, elegant playing of No 1’s Allegretto quasi menuetto.
Only in one place, the finale of No 2, is there the feeling that Hough’s fluency creates a problem: repeating the opening theme, he pushes on in a way that detracts from the sunny, contented atmosphere at the start. These are deeply considered, immensely satisfying accounts. Isserlis and Hough make a formidable team.
Cello Sonatas – Nos 1 & 2
Coupled with Lerchengesang, Op 70 No 2. Feldeinsamkeit, Op 86 No 2. Wie Melodien, Op 105 No 1. Sapphische Ode, Op 94 No 4. Liebestreu, Op 3 No 1. Scherzo, ‘FAE Sonata’, WoO2. Minnelied, Op 71 No 5. Wiegenlied, Op 49 No 15
Zuill Bailey vc Awadagin Pratt pf
Telarc TEL32664-02 (77’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Cellist Zuill Bailey, with understanding and often brilliant accompaniment from Awadagin Pratt, offers a whole disc of cello-and-piano music by Brahms. To the two great cello sonatas he adds not only a cello adaptation of the sonata movement that Brahms contributed to the FAE Sonata (originally for violin) but adds seven favourite songs with melodies apt for the cello.
The oddity is that the very first item, ‘Lerchengesang’ (‘Lark Song’), brings by far the least impressive performance on the disc, with tempi so erratic that the music lacks flow. Happily, this is followed immediately by Bailey’s masterly performance of the First Cello Sonata, in which the flexibility of tempo sounds totally natural and unforced, with the long first movement very well sustained at a broad tempo, with a delicate account of the central Allegretto, and with Awadagin Pratt exceptionally crisp and pointed in his contributions to the fugatos in the finale.
The other songs include a number of favourites such as ‘Feldeinsamkeit’, ‘Wie Melodien’, ‘Sapphische Ode’ and ‘Minnelied’. The account of the epic Second Sonata, with its four compact movements, even outshines Bailey’s performance of No 1, while the whole disc is rounded off with an ecstatically gentle account of ‘Wiegenlied’, Brahms’s much-loved cradle-song.
Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2
Coupled with Anklänge, Op 7 No 3. Die Mainacht, Op 43 No 2
Anthony Leroy (vc) Sandra Moubarak (pf)
Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT070202 (63’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Brahms’s cello sonatas tackle head on the real problem of balancing the cello’s potentially gruff lowest register and singing high tones with the piano, but he does not make matters easy for himself. Some of the piano textures are very thick and there are places in this recording where the problems are barely solved: the start of the Second Sonata and the finale of the First are cases in point. He is at least considerate enough to refine the piano textures when he risks asking the cello to play the flowing theme of this finale with the tricky slurred pizzicato, and this comes off excellently here.
The performances are exceptional. Anthony Leroy and Sandra Moubarak have a real understanding of Brahms’s unusually long phrases. In the great sweeping melody of the opening of the E minor Sonata they begin pensively and are not afraid to use considerable freedom of tempo change at the peak of the exposition before returning to this inwardness. The Adagio, another very long and varied melody, is beautifully phrased, as is the middle section of the third movement, its marking dolce espressivo constrasting with the general Allegro passionato. The E minor Sonata’s Minuet has a delightful lilt, and they go with a will at the difficult final fugue. There are also charming performances of the two songs included as fill-ups.