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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata in E minor, Opus 38 (1865)
Cello Sonata in F major, Opus 99 (1886)
Claude Starck (cello)
Christoph Eschenbach (piano)
Rec. October 1989, Temple St Jean, Paris DDD
CLAVES CD 50-9005 [58.35]
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Of all the major 19th century composers after Beethoven, none achieved a greater contribution in chamber music than Brahms. And the two cello sonatas are masterly examples of his genius in such music.

With a prolific composer such as Brahms it is all too tempting to take things for granted, so comparisons between these two pieces are usefully illuminating. For each work has its own particular and distinctive personality, while using to the full the possibilities of the partnership of cello and piano, and of the balances between strongly identified themes.

These characteristics are particularly striking if comparisons between the two opening movements are made. For example, in the E minor Sonata, Opus 38, the composer chooses a broad Allegro non troppo, which in this performance prompts Starck to produce a most satisfying and full tone in the distinctive melodic arch of the principal theme (TRACK 1: 0.00). As the movement proceeds, he is prone to indulge the romantic expressiveness of the music, slowing the tempo accordingly (TRACK 1: 7.55). In the Second Sonata, Opus 99, the opening Allegro is presented quite differently, with a Vivace intensification of tempo which therefore places an extra importance on the nature of the rhythmic vitality (TRACK 4: 0.00). Here also the artists respond positively to the challenge, and their reading of the score is splendidly lively and vital.

Of course the comparisons between the two sonatas are endlessly fascinating, and make one wonder whether Brahms responded to the task of composing a second sonata by referring back to the first and making the new work very different. With his more relaxed opening tempo in Opus 38, Brahms dispenses with a conventional slow movement, and goes further in opting for a three rather than a four-movement design. The central movement, marked Allegretto quasi Menuetto, presents the performers with some subtle challenges of interpretation, and their balancing, phrasing and pacing of the music brings many insights (TRACK 2: 0.00). Perhaps the contrasting trio (TRACK 2: 2.33) is somewhat relaxed, but this is heard in the context of a performance with tempi which tend to be spacious, a valid enough view.

In the Second Sonata, Opus 99, there is a true slow movement, an Adagio affettuoso, which the artists play with rare sensitivity (TRACK 5: 2.00). The skilful combination of these artists is nowhere better captured than in the resplendent finale of Opus 99 (TRACK 7: 0.00). At just over four minutes this is not a big movement in terms of length, but it has a magnificently powerful sweep, which Starck and Eschenbach communicate to the full (TRACK 7: 0.00).

On CD the Brahms sonatas combine at less than an hour's music, and many recordings offer an additional item or two. That is not the case here, but the programme is certainly satisfying enough to stand on its own. Claude Starck is an excellent cellist with a strong technique, and he brings many insights, as well as combining most effectively with his pianist, Christoph Eschenbach. We should remember that the latter was a top class concert pianist before embarking upon his successful career as a conductor. In these Brahms sonatas the piano part cannot be relegated to the description 'accompaniment', since the concept is one of partnership of equals. That equality is always found here, and the music gains from it, aided by recording at once sensitive and atmospheric.

Terry Barfoot

 


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Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor Op.38

Allegro non troppo

Allegretto quasi Menuetto

Allegro

Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op.99

Allegro Vivace

Adagio affettuoso

Allegro passionato

Allegro molto

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