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Download: Classicsonline

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Sicilienne, Op. 78 [3:31]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 117 [18:25]
Apres un reve (arr. P. Casals) [2:55]
Elegie, Op. 24 [6:18]
Romance, Op. 69 [3:52]
Berceuse, Op. 16 (arr. for cello and piano) [3:09]
Papillon, Op. 77 [3:02]
Serenade, Op. 98 [3:22]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 109 [19:19]
Pavane, Op. 50 (arr. H. Busser) [5:39]
Ina-Esther Joost Ben-Sasson (cello)
Allan Sternfield (piano)
rec. 4, 18 May, 2007, Henry Crown Concert Hall, Jerusalem Theater, Jerusalem, Israel
NAXOS DIGITAL 8.570545 [69:32]
Experience Classicsonline

These performances are quite unnecessary. There is a certain sameness to cellist Ina-Esther Joost Ben-Sasson’s playing which is frankly hard to believe: little attention is given to making a series of notes sound like a phrase, no playing is softer than mezzo-piano, dynamic changes are made (when they are made at all) suddenly rather than gradually. The music is effectively liberated of its emotion. This is what Gabriel Fauré’s music sounds like if played by a beginning cellist still too worried about sticking the notes to concentrate on expressing them.

More’s the pity because the soloist here, Ina-Esther Joost Ben-Sasson, is in fact one of the most important cellists in Israel, where she has held the first chair of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for twenty years. One of her teachers was Pierre Fournier. But, no matter how extensive her pedigree, I simply cannot bring myself to like these downright chilly performances. Consider the Elegie: the melancholy opening line is a mere string of notes, not a melody, and what follows is unsubtle and passionless. Or listen to the finale of the First Cello Sonata, in which Joost Ben-Sasson’s inability to play softly does considerable harm to Fauré’s expressive writing. Pianist Allan Sternfield does his best to compensate with tasteful, elegant accompaniment, but his efforts are not enough.

Why do I use the word “unnecessary” to describe this album? Its publisher, Naxos, released a superb compilation of Fauré’s cello sonatas just last year, featuring the world-class soloist Maria Kliegel and her longtime accompanist, Nina Tichman (8.557889 - see review). Kliegel has always been an emotive performer willing to let her instrument sing, and she consistently gets to the romantic, deeply felt core of this music. The beautiful Elegie is the best place to compare the two discs: listen to this Joost Ben-Sasson performance first, then put on the Kliegel and marvel at her more sensitive touch, her richer tone, and most of all the way in which this feels not merely like music at a recital but like an actual elegy, dressed in the colours of mourning. Listen to how marvelously Kliegel reduces the second statement of the opening theme to near-silence, a hushed echo of the original. Joost Ben-Sasson seemingly cannot be bothered.

Or take the charming Papillon, or the Romance: here Joost Ben-Sasson is in better form, but switching to the Kliegel recordings reveals once again that Kliegel is on an entirely different level. Ben-Sasson is playful and brash; Kliegel, in contrast, teases, seduces and lingers over select phrases just enough to make one’s ears perk up. Comparison also reveals the fact that Joost Ben-Sasson is rather too closely miked, and sometimes her playing can take on the nasal quality for which the cello is often - but usually unfairly - criticized.

There are many other wonderful recordings of this music. Steven Isserlis on RCA, Frédéric Lodéon on EMI, and Paul Tortelier on Warner Apex are among the fine cellists to have tackled some or all of the repertoire on this disc. I focus on the comparison with Maria Kliegel’s outstanding recording, however, because the naturalness, refinement and beautiful tone of Kliegel’s playing stands in such contrast to this effort, and because the two performances are both to be had at the Naxos price. Naxos almost never duplicates repertoire - this is a label which has only made one recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, for instance - so why they have chosen to release a second set of Fauré’s music for cello and piano, a year after the first, is beyond me, especially when the first is so obviously superior. I am sure Ina-Esther Joost Ben-Sasson had the best of intentions in making this album, and I do not wish to criticize the fine effort of accompanist Allan Sternfield, but these recordings are simply unnecessary. Where Kliegel plays with heart, Joost Ben-Sasson goes through the motions. And the difference in sound quality is substantial as well.

As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. But please do yourself a favor by finding the extra few pennies and buying the Kliegel album instead.

Brian Reinhart 



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