Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello sonata no. 2 in F major, op. 123 (1905) [32:53]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 65 (1846) [29:33]
Introduction and polonaise brillante in C major, op. 3 (1829) [9:20]
Jamie Walton (cello); Daniel Grimwood (piano)
rec. 11-12 April 2010, Wyastone, Monmouthshire. DDD

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 Guarneri cello.

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.

Guy Aron

This is an enterprising and very well played program of Romantic cello music, but the small piano sound may deter some.