FAURÉ; SAINT-SAËNS Works for Cello and Piano
Is it possible to define a distinctively French style of cello-playing? It would probably have something to do with the way the tone is focused: tight, controlled, yet capable of concentrated sweetness and a wonderful flexibility. Whatever it might be, the Irish cellist Brian O’Kane has got the measure of it, and in partnership with Michael McHale the sheer idiomatic elegance of his playing pays rich dividends throughout this handsomely filled disc.
And that’s emphatically not damning with faint praise. The idea of pairing Fauré’s two cello sonatas with comparable works by his teacher and friend Saint-Saëns is an illuminating one, and both these players have a natural sense for this music’s less obvious qualities. They’re helped by a recorded balance that places the piano very slightly behind the cello but ensures that both players come through with crystal clarity; a real asset in performances of this freshness and subtlety.
Without ever seeming mannered, the pair find premonitions of Falla and even Stravinsky in Fauré’s First Sonata, and capture the restless, sometimes destabilising currents that drive the post-First World War Second Sonata. McHale’s contribution is especially rewarding: in the quieter moments of each work (and in Saint-Saëns’s Romance, Op 36, in particular) he combines bell-like lucidity with a bright inner glow.
Perhaps O’Kane could have found a slightly richer tone for the really passionate climaxes; but in Saint-Saëns’s First Sonata his lower strings thunder with the best of them. Both players find rich contrasts in this impetuous, melodramatic mini-masterpiece. A garland of shorter works surrounds the three sonatas, some more familiar than others – though in these hands, even that old chestnut ‘Le cygne’ sounds like it’s newly blossomed and covered in dew.