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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-65) [25:32]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 (1886) [25:34]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Waldesruhe (Klid or Silent Woods), Op. 68, No. 5 (1891 arrangement of the fifth piece from Ze Šumavy (From the Bohemian Forest) of 1883-84 for piano 4-hands Op.68, [05:22]
Rondo in G minor, Op. 94 (1891) [07:01]
Joseph SUK (1874-1935)

Ballade in D minor, Op. 3, No. 1 (1890) [04:58]
Serenade in A major, Op. 3, No. 2 (1896) [04:50]
Steven Isserlis, cello
Stephen Hough, piano
Recorded in St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 2-4 May 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67529 [73:49]
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It was twenty-one years ago when the young cellist Steven Isserlis, for his debut release for Hyperion, recorded the Brahms cello sonatas with pianist Peter Evans on Hyperion CDA66159. The disc deservedly became one of the label’s early best-sellers. Isserlis is regarded as one of the foremost cellists of our time and has now re-recorded these works for the same label, this time in partnership with his colleague, the renowned pianist Stephen Hough.

The sonatas come from very different periods in Brahms’s life. They have proved to be enduring and are invaluable assets to the cello and piano repertoire, almost indisputably the most important cello sonatas from the second half of the nineteenth century. Isserlis in his booklet notes writes of them as cornerstones of the repertory that perfectly convey the passion their composer had for the instrument which he mastered in his youth.

The three movement Cello Sonata No.1 has been described as a pastoral work with elegiac overtones. Brahms composed it between 1862 and 1865 during an especially fertile period that included the composition of the second String Sextet Op. 36; the Piano Quintet Op. 34; the Cantata: Rinaldo Op. 50 and the mighty Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45.

In the extended opening movement of the weighty performance from Isserlis and Hough immediately struck me as pacier than I have previously been used to. Nevertheless, their playing is certainly authoritative and the duo skilfully bring out its brooding and ruminative character. The central movement allegretto comes as a welcome relief and is given a charming and light-hearted interpretation. The partnership in the concluding movement, which is a robust mixture of fugue and sonata form, takes the music by the ‘scruff of the neck’ performing with vigour and absolute determination.

Expansive in form and extrovert in character the four movement Cello Sonata No. 2 was composed in 1886 and is a very different proposition to the earlier sonata. Brahms completed the score during his highly productive summer holiday at Hofstetten, near Thun, where he also composed two other of his best-loved chamber music masterpieces, the radiant Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100; and the terse and passionate Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101. If the brooding and nostalgic E minor Cello Sonata shows Brahms the young man presenting his credentials as a scholar and a mature gentleman, the whirlwind of concentrated energy of the F major Cello Sonata is the work of an older man composing music with all the passion and sweep of youth.

Biographer Walter Niemann described the exclamations of the cello in the extraordinarily bold opening movement of the F major as, "outcries, and appeals of wild agitation." The duo robustly convey with considerable artistry the feverish character of the movement, where the instruments are pitted against each other in a wild, storm tossed sea of tremolandi. The soaring melody, which is the heart of the richly styled adagio, is especially well performed by Isserlis. Powerful and dark, the scherzo is unusual for its spacious design and notable for its strength of material. It is played with significant vitality and a strong sense of purpose. Isserlis and Hough in the concluding movement do not entirely provide that lightness of touch that the music requires; however their playing of the quiet and sensitive coda is especially effective.

There are several really collectable versions of the sonatas. The best known are the recordings from the heavyweight partnerships of Harrell and Kovacevich on EMI Classics CDC5564402; Du Pré and Barenboim on EMI Classics CDC5572932; Ma and Ax on RCA Victor Red Seal Classic Library 82 876 59415 2 and Rostropovich and Serkin on Deutsche Grammophon 410 510-2. My personal recommendation is for the lesser-known, yet no less wonderful accounts, from cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Paul Komen on Channel Classics CCS 5493. Using original instruments with period performance practice these 1992 Netherlands interpretations offered me considerable new insights into the scores.

Dvořák’s Waldesruhe and the Rondo are most agreeable scores and the partnership of Isserlis and Hough are in fine form throughout. The cello timbre sounds marvellous in the charming leading melody of Waldesruhe a work that is so evocative of nature. The Rondo was inspired by Dvořák’s anxiety and sadness at leaving his homeland for an extended period in America. The music is shrouded in a light mist of sorrow a mood that the duo of Isserlis and Hough thoughtfully capture.

I have admired Waldesruhe and the Rondo for many years. I still play my 1977 Prague recording on vinyl of the orchestral transcriptions performed by Miloš Sádlo with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Neumann on Supraphon 1-10-2081/2. This is coupled with the Cello Concerto in A major (realisation and orchestration), Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 and Polonaise in A major.

Suk’s Ballade and Serenade are his only scores for cello and piano. That unmistakable Czech charm suffuses these scores and is admirably communicated with both precision and passion.

The balance between the two performers is especially well done by the sound engineers and the booklet notes provided by Isserlis are an interesting read. Performed with vitality and robustness this is up there with the established catalogue leaders. An extremely fine recording that is worth adding to any chamber music collection.

Michael Cookson



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