RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Frédéric (Fryderyk) CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in g minor, Op.65 (1846) [32:29]
Étude, Op.10/6, Andante, transcribed by Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936) [4:52]
Simon (Szymon) LAKS (1901-1983) Sonata for cello and piano (1932)* [16:39]
Karl (Karol) SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937) Sonata in d minor, Op.9 (1904) transcribed from Violin Sonata by Kazimierz WILKOMIRSKI [21:46]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello); John York (piano)
rec. Wyastone, Monmouth, UK, 23-24 January, 2010. DDD.
* First recording.
NIMBUS NI5862 [75:53]
This is an enterprising new release, combining the comparatively familiar Chopin Cello Sonata, of which the Naxos Music Library alone offers 23 complete versions, with two less well-known works – the Laks is receiving its first recording – by Polish composers who had connections with Paris, a connection accentuated by Nimbus giving all three composers’ first names in French rather than Polish. I have listed both in the heading. A further connection is provided by the fact that Szymanowski helped Laks to settle in Paris.
I am working at a slight disadvantage in reviewing this CD in that my review copy seems to have gone astray and I have had to work by streaming the near-CD quality version from the Naxos Music Library – a small disadvantage, since I have always found, from direct comparison, recordings from this source to be hardly, if at all, distinguishable from the original.
The slightly odd title “Chopin Cello Sonatas”, in the plural, is, I suppose, justified by the inclusion of Glazunov’s transcription of the Étude, Op.10/6, which has also been included, together with other Chopin transcriptions, on the recording of the Cello Sonata by Maria Kliegel and Bernd Glemser on Naxos 8.553159. Truls Mørk and Kathryn Stott also include transcriptions of other Chopin works, including Op.10/6, on their recording on Virgin Classics 385784-2. Michael Cookson thought the playing on this Virgin recording masterly, the music highly attractive and the recording crystal clear but close-miked – see review.
Otherwise, the main rival with which the new recording must contend is on Hyperion CDA67624, where a 2007 performance by Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne is coupled with another romantic Cello Sonata by Charles Alkan – an inspired coupling, a performance to stand alongside the best available, and a wonderfully clean and transparent recording in Robert Costin’s opinion – see review. With these three well-placed contenders, then, the new Nimbus recording is facing strong competition, especially as the Naxos has a price advantage.
The Nimbus booklet reminds us, if reminder were needed, of the distinguished recordings which Raphael Wallfisch has made for the label, the most recent of which, the C.P.E. Bach Cello Concertos on NI5848, I thought highly competitive – see review. If anything, I’ve formed a higher view of that recording since I wrote the review, and others have concurred. I also very much enjoyed his recording of the Martinu Cello Concertos and Concertino (Chandos CHAN10547X, Reissue of the Month in my September 2009 Download Roundup) and his version of the Bax Cello Concerto (CHAN8494, download only – see review). He has also made for Chandos recordings of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, Schumann’s music for cello and piano and chamber music by Kenneth Leighton, all now available only as downloads.
More to the point, Wallfisch and York have recorded the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas and Variations (NI5741/2), the Shostakovich Cello Sonata as part of a complete set of his cello works (NI5764/5) and Goldmark and Korngold Cello Sonatas (NI5806). On Black Box BBM11032, they have recorded Shostakovich and Schnittke, which Gary Higginson described as a first class achievement for all concerned – see review.
I used the Hyperion recording as my chief comparison for the Chopin, but first I listened to the new recording and was completely won over by it. His other recordings which I have heard led me to expect much of Wallfisch, and I was not disappointed, but York, too, contributes equally to the success of the performance. It’s often said that Chopin gives the lion’s share of the music to the piano – it’s certainly true that it has much more than a supporting role – but Wallfisch and York assuredly share the honours on this recording, a fact emphasised by the very clear spatial separation of the instruments when listening on good headphones. My first run-through took place when I couldn’t get to sleep on a hot, muggy night and didn’t want to disturb anyone. Wallfisch plays with a real flourish, where appropriate, as at the end of the first movement, while York, though no wilting flower, never tries to outshine him.
Their tempo for the opening movement, Allegro moderato, pays more attention to the moderato modification than most recordings – Pontinen and Thedeen, on BIS-CD-1076, for example, are significantly faster – but it loses nothing in energy by so doing. In the second movement, Scherzo, allegro con brio, there is certainly plenty of brio, but it is never overdone, while the slow movement is a true Largo without ever becoming lugubrious. The allegro finale is, like the opening movement, a little more measured than rival performances – Pontinen and Thedeen again, for example – but, once more, the forward momentum is never lost and the performance is wholly convincing.
To make matters even, I did my initial listening to the Hyperion recording on headphones, too. The instruments are much less clearly spatially separated than on the Nimbus recording, with the piano slightly more dominant, whether because of the recording or from the performing style is hard to say. I don’t wish to imply that the cello is swamped here, but it does seem a very slightly less equal partner than on Nimbus. Though the overall timing of the opening movement is faster than on Nimbus – 14:48 against 16:34 – there were moments when the momentum seemed less well paced on Hyperion.
By the end of that first movement, I had formed a small but clear preference for the new recording, though I could very happily live with either: as regular readers will know, I’m often sceptical of my initial reaction after a Building a Library type of comparison – a performance often grows in stature away from such direct comparisons. Overall, I see no reason to disagree with Robert Costin’s high opinion of the Hyperion recording, which I hope to return to in my next Download Roundup. If the Alkan coupling appeals, buy the Hyperion with confidence.
Ideally, I want both recordings, if only for the diversity of the couplings. After the Cello Sonata, the transcription of Op.10/6, transposed from E-flat to d minor, is rather small beer, and it offers very little in addition to the original, but it is played well and it makes an attractive makeweight: if nothing else, it brings the playing time of the new CD to a very respectable 76 minutes. The notes describe this as a kind of encore.
I mentioned the budget-price competition from Naxos. The slight tendency which is present on the Hyperion recording for the piano to shine at the expense of the cello is even more apparent on this version, perhaps as a result of the recording balance rather than the performers, since Maria Kliegel is an able cellist and well able to stand up to the competition of a full orchestra, let alone the piano. By omitting repeats, Kliegel and Glemser reduce the opening movement to a mere ten minutes, which diminishes its power in relation to the sonata as a whole.
Where this recording scores is in the inclusion of the Grand Duo Concertante in E on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. It’s worth spending £5 or so on the Naxos CD for this alone; Try it out via the Naxos Music Library. Alternatively, at much the same price, the Hyperion Helios label offers Garrick Ohlsson and Carter Brey in this work, again coupled with the Cello Sonata, one of Hyperion’s series of Ohlsson Chopin reissues (CDH55384). I recommended his Polonaises in my April 2010 Download Roundup and I hope to feature this CD of the Cello Sonata in a future Roundup. Meanwhile I note that the emphasis here is on Ohlsson’s pianism and that this recording, too, shortens the opening movement of the sonata to just over ten minutes.
The Laks Sonata left me wanting to hear more from this neglected composer. In three fairly short movements, the first of which ends particularly powerfully, it never outstays its welcome, as perhaps, the Szymanowski does slightly. I wasn’t sure what to expect of a sonata written in Paris in the 1930s, but this is the work of a composer who was of his time, especially in the jaunty, almost jazzy, finale, yet spoke with an individual voice.
The cello transcription of Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata is, as the notes claim, completely idiomatic. In this accomplished performance, one would never guess that it had not been written for the cello, though John York in the booklet suggests a number of ways in which it might have been improved – a little discreet pruning perhaps? The catalogue is not exactly overburdened with recordings of this work in its original form – one only, on Accord ACD077, so far as I can ascertain – so the new version is especially welcome.
The recording is excellent throughout. Having listened initially on headphones – a good way to hear chamber music, quite apart from the circumstances which I’ve explained – I then listened via speakers and was equally impressed. The stereo separation is less extreme in that mode, which many will prefer. If the CD sounds better than the streamed version, it’s very good indeed.
John York’s notes in the Nimbus booklet are informative: I’ve relied on them for information especially about Szymon Laks, who wasn’t even a name to me before I heard this recording. Though he survived incarceration in a concentration camp, after the war he turned to film music, so his talent was destroyed just as effectively as that of those who actually died in the camps.
I might not be tempted to buy this CD for the sake of the Szymanowski, enjoyable as it is, but, though there are other fine versions of the Chopin, I’m inclined to think that this will become my version of choice now, and I’m very pleased to have discovered the Laks. I understand that Nimbus are planning to make this one of the centrepieces of their recent releases, with very good reason. For my part it’s one of the unexpected highlights of the Chopin bicentenary year. It’s already received high praise in other quarters, so I’m all the more confident in making this Recording of the Month.
One of the unexpected highlights of the Chopin year for me