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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Cello Sonata No.2 Op.66 [27:30]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 (1901) [32:03]
Wolfgang Laufer (cello)
Steven Swedish (piano)
Recorded at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, undated
GASPARO GSCD 365 [59:33]

Though the pressing and copyright year is noted as 2006 this is not a new release, Gasparo having originally released this unusual and unlikely pairing on GS 270C. I don’t know the date of recording though it would have been better for the company to have acknowledged an exact year. As it is one notices a relatively high level of tape hiss in the Villa-Lobos, perhaps less so in the companion work, but sufficient to wonder whether any remedial work has been carried out on the master tapes; apparently such work has, but it’s not a really satisfactory state of affairs.

Enough of the technical concerns, what about the performances? Well Laufer and Swedish prove to be upholders of the linear tendency in Rachmaninoff playing. Not for them the dank and weepy byways, the Turovsky-Edlina school of wringing every drop of emotion, every furtive tear, from this sonata. No, these are serious minded and straight-down-the-middle men. Laufer in fact has a stringent and rather military approach to tempo and to the dictates of architecture generally. Even in the slow movement he proves reluctant to countenance the kind of expressive shading, the shaping of dynamics, accelerandi and decelerandi, and the use of finger position changes to make emotive points. He is, so far as I can tell, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Turovsky when it comes to matters of expressive content. Everyone else will sit somewhere between these twin poles.

The Villa-Lobos is a strange one. I’m a big admirer of the chamber works, the extensive series of string quartets in particular and the late chamber works still have a wonderful avidity and warmth to them. But that doesn’t much come across in the Second Sonata; or at least not in this performance. Steven Swedish proves his chops are in fine form in the quite demanding piano opening and there’s warm lyricism in the flowing slow movement. But despite the evocative extroversion of the finale and the folk-inflected rhythms of the scherzo it’s a performance that doesn’t really excavate the full measure of the sonata’s passion.

These then are rather lean and occasionally impersonal performances, variably and closely recorded. At their best they offer the rewards of clarity and a certain judicial detachment.

Jonathan Woolf


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