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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata No.1 in E minor for Cello and Piano Op.38 (1862) [26:30]
Sonata No.2 in F major for Cello and Piano Op.99 (1886) [27:54]
Sonata in D major (arr. from Violin Sonata No.1 in G major Op.78, 1878-79) [27:18]
Torlief Thedéen (cello)
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. June 2006, Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-SACD-1606 [82:26]

Experience Classicsonline
There are quite a few recordings of Brahms’ two magnificent cello sonatas around and they couple well on record, their contrasting character and content making for a good programme. Op.38 has a good deal of counterpoint and fugal writing, relating to Bach as well as owing a debt to the model of Beethoven in the weight given to the first movement. Relative to its more profoundly conceived counterpart, the mighty Op.99, the Sonata No.1 is musically clear almost to a fault, the only real enigma being an Adagio movement which was removed by Brahms and subsequently lost. My main reference for these pieces has for a long time been the 1992 Sony recording by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, which I have as part of a meagre collection of mini-discs: remember them? This is a fine recording and a good performance, but the richer texture of Torlief Thedéen’s cello means that the material in the lower registers has more substance, projecting a little better through the piano in the frequent places where it takes a greater melodic role. These are both pieces which demand equality in balance, the piano having every much a solo function as the cello, and in this regard the BIS engineering is truly excellent. The cello is not too close, but there is still a certain amount of ‘glancing’, where notes from different registers sometimes pop in from different channels through what is quite a stunning and wide stereo image. This is less apparent in the more rounded effect of a surround set-up, where the acoustic plays a greater role and the ear is tricked ‘into the room’ rather than being presented with a frontal stage.

The Sonata No.2 is a wonderful piece, and the Adagio affettuoso is a favourite Brahms movement which is played very well here. There is a certain amount of sniffing from Thedéen but he’s not the only cellist who does this. The ‘concerto’ nature of the music in the outer movements is tackled head on by both players, with some deep digging going on but always proportionate to the intent of the composer. Without going for a blow-by-blow account of each section, I am impressed by the way in which these players seem to intensify the character of each theme and gesture without ballooning them into a kind of stereotypical musical grandstand. To sum up, they’ve ‘nailed’ this and all the other pieces on this disc, and if you are open to Brahms’ eloquent message and even already familiar with this repertoire, this is a recording which will sweep you further than you might have expected to be swept.

The Ma/Ax disc is also coupled with a violin sonata, but in their case this is the D minor Op.108, and Thedéen and Pöntinen opt for an arrangement of the even more substantial Sonata in D major, originally the Violin Sonata No.1 in G major Op.78. This is also known as the Regenlied Sonata for its references to songs from Brahms’ Op.59 Acht Lieder und Gesänge. As soon as the melodic charm of the opening takes effect you know pretty much what you are in for - wonderful, though adjusting from familiarity with the original tonality and different range and colour of the same musical material on violin may take a few beats. You can quite easily divest yourself of any discomfort, the playing soon creating a convincing argument for this as a ‘new’ piece for which this setting was always the prime intention after all. The exchange of ideas between instruments works differently here than with the other two sonatas, the instruments having more give and take rather than meeting as unified or challenging equals, the piano having on occasions a more accompanying role, which makes you realise just how richly intense the compositional integrity is of the original cello sonatas. This is powerful stuff however, and a tremendous, often darkly forceful performance.

This is a highly desirable disc on almost every level, with very fine performances and a state of the art recording. My only minor downer is the cover photo, which is dour and looks dated, and not a reflection of the resonant vibe from the disc itself. Stiff competition may present doubts to those who already have one or other version of this music, and the Stephens Isserlis and Hough is still reckoned to be a leading contender in any roundup (see review). At over 82 minutes I think this is the longest single CD I have ever come across, so there are no complaints with regard to value for money. This is a recording full of genuinely passionate and remarkably immediate playing, including some stamping of feet, for instance at 1:11 into the Allegro passionato third movement of Op.99. My personal opinion is that this is now the standard against which other recordings, beloved old classics such as Jaqueline du Pré and Rostropovich aside, will now be judged.

Dominy Clements
 


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