Some orchestral and choral recordings can impress you just by
their sheer “size”: grandeur, width, weight of sound.
There is a lot going on, and we are delighted by seeing it all
work together. Are we more impressed by the quality or the quantity?
For me, it is an open question. It’s more difficult to
astound when you are playing something of much more modest proportions.
I’ve heard on the Internet a few sound-clips from the
new recording by Thomas Carroll and Llŷr Williams, and
I expected it to be good. But I did not anticipate it to be
It is always easier to criticize. A long list of superlatives
looks suspicious. I don’t even want to do comparisons
with other recordings: this one seems to me excellent in every
sense. It will change your like of this music to love.
It is devoted. The cello sound is “big” and vibrant.
It has pulp. It is not smoothly flat - but the vibrato does
not annoy. The instrument belongs to Carroll’s teacher
Heinrich Schiff, and it is a 1767 Guadagnini. The piano sound
is full and round, yet can be transparently delicate. The recording
is deep and spacious, with ideal balance of the two instruments.
When I listen, I want to put every track on “Repeat”.
I imagine a look “from the side” on my words, and
I understand that they may sound fishy, like a bad commercial.
Can a recording of standard chamber repertoire by musicians
without “star” status generate such a torrent of
praise? Believe me, yes!
The album is entitled “Vienna” and contains three
cello sonatas by three great composers that blessed this city
with their presence in the 19th century. The Second
Sonata by Brahms is the more heroic and passionate of his
two works for the medium. Carroll and Williams dive into it
like swimmers in the Olympics, with splashes of excitement around
them. In calmer places, both instruments sing, and their voices
blend perfectly. The slow movement is a heartfelt romance with
some delightful play with timbres. The pizzicato is well pronounced
and is not buried under the piano. The phrasing is expressive.
The Scherzo is a dark, wild ride, yet not too fast to lose the
human touch and become demonic. Its Trio is warm and nostalgic.
The finale is sunny and positive, as Brahms liked to do, but
you should expect some very Romantic moments.
After the overheated Brahms, the Arpeggione comes as
cool and refreshing balm. The cello and the viola have long
claimed this sonata each to their own. The problem I often noticed
is that in dense pages the cello tends to sound heavy, busy
and “dirty”. Happily, this is not the case here.
The cello is as light as any viola, yet still not “thin”
in the way a viola can be. What the cello version has that the
viola one doesn’t is the greater richness or different
registers, from the deepest growling low, through the murmuring
middle, to the translucent top. This recording presents a most
compelling argument in favour of the cello version. In the opening
Allegro the performers do not hurry, and unwrap its glorious
melodies with care. The tempo and dynamics are alive, and the
slight rubato is very natural. The two Welsh musicians
know how to build Schubertian tension and how to maintain the
dancing lightness. The slow movement is a serene song without
words. The finale sways between a lyrical refrain and a merry
polka, and Carroll and Williams keep us airborne throughout
its colorful episodes. The performance of the entire sonata
has a rare sense of unity, like a big arch from first to last.
The aftertaste is wonderful.
Finally we arrive at Beethoven’s great Op.69, and the
performers do not let us down. The brave and valiant opening
Allegro shares the revolutionary spirit of Eroica
and Appassionata. It also resembles its sister - the
opening movement of the Kreutzer sonata, but without
the panic attacks. It is more confident, like an arrow that
knows for sure that it will hit the target. Again, in the dense
places of the development section the cello sound is remarkably
clear. The pizzicato is sonorous. The music flows as a powerful
stream, yet the musicians show no haste, and the lyrical episodes
are expressive. The jumpy, angular Scherzo has a lot of off-beat
accents and is presented with good contrast. What starts as
a warm and tender slow movement is actually just a short introduction
into the extrovert and lively finale, one of Beethoven’s
happiest creations. Its mercurial sprints have Mozartean charm.
The performance is invigorating and conveys happiness.
In the photo on the front cover, Thomas Carroll looks nervous.
He has absolutely nothing to worry about! In my opinion these
are definitive performances of ultimate beauty, and I think
that I already know what will be my Disc of the Year.