RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata No.2 in F, Op.99 (1886) [28:40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor “Arpeggione”, D.821 (1824) [23:47]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No.3 in A, Op.69 (1808) [26:38]
Thomas Carroll (cello) Llŷr Williams (piano)
rec. October 2009 and April 2010 (Schubert) at the Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouth. DDD.
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100016 [79:46]
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 that good.
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.
Definitive performances of ultimate beauty. My Disc of the Year.