Franck; Rachmaninov Cello Sonatas

Isserlis and Hough pass Rachmaninov’s notorious balance test with flying colours

Author: 
John Warrack

Franck; Rachmaninov Cello Sonatas

  • Sonata for Cello and Piano
  • (2) Morceaux de Salon
  • Sonata for Violin and Piano
  • Panis angelicus
  • (Le) Sylphe

There is no shortage of versions of César Franck’s Violin Sonata for cello and piano (see also Duncan Druce on the new Yo-Yo Ma cello transcription on page 57), including one that often returns in different guises by Jacqueline Du Pré and Daniel Barenboim. The work comes off well in this form, and indeed there is some evidence that Franck may have first intended it as a cello sonata; he certainly accepted it as such. Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough give a serene and eloquent performance, and even manage to justify rather a sticky lollipop to their recital in the shape of Panis angelicus, arranged here for the umpteenth time, with soprano Rebecca Evans keeping a warm and steady line in the much traduced melody.

The most striking performance, however, is of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata. Here, too, there is no lack of comparative versions, variously coupled to a wide variety of cello sonatas. This new one is particularly sensitive to the notorious problems of balance which Rachmaninov always set his interpreters in chamber music, reluctant as he was to tame his own boundless virtuosity.

The Scherzo is particularly well done, as the rapid patterings and the singing lines weave and exchange in complex patterns that present many problems. As for the Andante, ‘if the two instruments rarely interact, they change roles with sublime effects, particularly in the gently resolving coda’, as Geoffrey Norris puts it in his Master Musicians’ volume on Rachmaninov (OUP: 2001). Isserlis draws attention to a passage in the finale when, in apparent defiance of the score, they take it ff instead of pp. He claims, interestingly, that this modification came from his grandmother, whose husband used to play the work with its dedicatee, Anatoly Brandukov, who in turn had it from the composer.

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