The cello and piano duo of Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood
have followed up their Grieg and Rachmaninov recording with
another couple of major Romantic cello sonatas. This disc includes
the Chopin Cello Sonata and a much less well known work, the
second Sonata by Saint-Saëns. The early Chopin Introduction
and Polonaise brillante finishes the collection. This program,
which combines standard works with those less well-known, should
encourage listeners to give repertoire such as the Saint-Saëns
sonata a hearing.
Another distinctive aspect about this disc is the piano. The
liner-notes mention Daniel Grimwood’s interest in early pianos;
he has given performances on an 1840 and an 1851 Erard. No make
of piano is specified in the liner-notes, but the instrument
used on this recording has a bell-like treble that lacks the
fullness of a modern grand. This has advantages in terms of
improving the balance with the cello, but the smaller sound
will be problematic for some.
The Cello Sonata no. 2 by Saint-Saëns is a substantial work,
which, like the Chopin Sonata, is in four movements. I didn’t
take to this sonata very much at first, but found that I liked
it more on a second hearing. With occasional echoes of the Mendelssohn
and Beethoven cello sonatas, it lacks a really distinctive voice,
and there is some rather empty note-spinning in the finale.
However, the work certainly displays Saint-Saëns’ customary
fluency and craftsmanship. The first movement has an imposing
Maestoso, largamente opening that is reminiscent of a French
overture; this is followed by a Tranquillo section that Walton
plays with a fine legato. The second movement is a scherzo with
variations, with rather Beethovenian polyphonic episodes; Grimwood
plays the syncopated figures clearly. The third movement begins
in a rather reserved way, leading to a melodic episode with
rather modern-sounding harmonies. The finale begins with a fugue,
which gives way to a minor key episode dominated by a triplet
figure. The writing for both instruments is particularly virtuosic
in this movement. Walton and Grimwood play this work in an appropriately
grand manner; Walton gets a beautifully full tone from his 1712
The Chopin Cello Sonata is unmistakably a masterpiece of the
Romantic cello repertoire. Chopin laboured over this piece for
almost two years, and it is his final opus number. In spite
of his care the work has unresolved structural problems, the
first movement being as long as the remaining movements put
together. On the other hand the emotional content is much richer
than in the Saint-Saëns sonata. As a genuine duo sonata, in
which each part is of equal importance, the work offers plenty
of opportunities for a talented duo such as Walton and Grimwood
to “play off” each other.
The first movement begins in a melancholy, rather troubled mood.
Walton and Grimwood observe the Allegro moderato marking,
and their deliberate approach gradually ratchets up the tension.
The duo seem to be feeling their way into this movement at times;
this creates a sense of genuine engagement as the musical argument
gradually takes hold. Walton’s double-stopping is very smooth;
the piano struggles to make a crescendo in the climactic passages
where it accompanies the cello’s ascending scales. The Scherzo
draws subtly varied bowing from Walton, from the staccato opening
to the legato Trio; he plays this beautiful but exposed melody
with immaculate intonation. The slow movement is taken at a
true Largo, and the long melody draws more sensitive playing
from the duo. The Finale is one of Chopin’s equestrian movements,
like that of the Third Piano Sonata. The duo again observes
Chopin’s Allegro non troppo grazioso marking, giving
the music time to breathe. Walton’s double-stopping impresses
here also, and his upper register sounds very secure; the interplay
between him and Grimwood is lively and responsive to every nuance.
The Introduction and Polonaise brillante is done with
a lively prancing rhythm, and the melodic writing for cello
and the filigree piano part are each played in fine spirit.
The recorded sound and balance are very good.
The comparison in the sonata is with the 1981 recording with
Mstislav Rostropovich and Martha Argerich on Deutsche Grammophon.
It seems incredible that a thirty year old recording should
still be the benchmark for this work, but it received the top
recommendation in a recent BBC Building a Library program. This
is a fabulous performance; Rostropovich and Argerich’s interplay
has wonderful freedom, and they really strike sparks from each
other. One only has to listen to Rostropovich’s huge tone and
unaffected lyricism in the Trio to realise that this is a recording
unlikely to be bettered. Deutsche Grammophon’s ADD sound is
also excellent. This recording is only available in a 17 CD
Chopin set (DG 477 8445). However, Walton and Grimwood’s account
stands up well; Walton’s sound approaches Rostropovich’s in
its fullness, and his partnership with Grimwood is a true meeting
of minds. Argerich is playing what sounds like a modern grand,
which allows her greater volume at the climaxes than Grimwood’s
instrument affords him. For those who are dubious about early
piano sound this is really the only reservation.