Years ago I switched on my car radio in the middle of a work
for cello and piano, and couldnít decide who the composer was.
It sounded a bit like Beethoven; but then it didnít Ė too much
frothy passage work. Maybe Mozart? No, a bit more oomph than
that. It turned out to be one of the Mendelssohn cello sonatas.
Mendelssohnís cello and piano output comprises two Sonatas,
the Variations Concertantes, an Assai tranquillo, and a late
Song without Words. All this comes to about an hour of music,
fitting nicely onto a CD. It is played here by a young Israeli
cellist, Emanuel Gruber, with his regular duo partner Arnon
The current recording begins with the Variations. Where a grand
piano is involved it will often overpower a cello, but with
this duo it is the other way around. Emanuel Gruber seems reluctant
to cede the melodic interest to his partner, even when the cello
is clearly accompanying the piano. Arnon Erez compounds this
tendency by the skill with which he recedes into the background.
This is highly accomplished playing, but lacks the give and
take that marks the best chamber music performance.
The first Sonata begins at a fairly brisk tempo, a little unyieldingly
maintained. Again the playing of the duo is very clean, but
together with the slightly rigid tempo there is a lack of dynamic
variety. This gives a somewhat relentless feeling. There is
a bit more dynamic shading in the Andante, where Emanuel Gruberís
legato playing is eloquent; I felt he could have made more of
some of the phrases. The final Allegro Assai opens in a placid
mood, which soon gives way to brilliant episodes with plenty
of interplay between the partners. Gruber and Erez perform this
efficiently, but without much light and shade. I particularly
felt that Gruber could have varied his tone production more
by using different amounts of bow weight and varying its proximity
from the bridge.
The Song without Words again receives a smooth and controlled
performance; the mid-section could have been a bit more passionate.
Technically, Gruberís legato is extremely impressive; his bow
changes are beautifully smoothed over. Interpretively, however,
I felt that he extends his phrases to the point of monotony.
The second Sonata suffered from the same faults as the first,
with the cello being over-dominant and the rhythms unyielding.
The duoís sound is hampered by what sounds like a very dry acoustic,
which robs Gruberís fine 1706 David Tecchler cello of tonal
Christophe Coin and Patrick Cohen recorded these works in 1989
- released by Oiseau-Lyre in 1992. This was one of the earliest
recordings of the Mendelssohn cello sonatas, and as far as I
know the first to use a fortepiano. Coin and Cohen have a genuine
chamber music partnership, each receding into the background
to accompany the other as required. They also really dig into
the works in a passionate way. Timings are slower, by almost
5 minutes in each of the sonatas; this suggests a more fleet
but also more superficial approach on the part of Gruber and
Erez. Although Coinís instrument is by an anonymous maker, he
achieves far more tonal and dynamic variety than Gruber. A lot
of this stems from his bowing, which concentrates less on achieving
a perfect legato than on advancing the musical argument. Cohen
and Coinís performances are more dramatic than Gruberís and
Erezís, much better recorded and more musically satisfying.
I wish I could be more positive about this recording; both players
are obviously considerable artists who have a feeling for Mendelssohn.
Unfortunately their approach emphasises this composerís fluency
and brilliance at the expense of his more substantial qualities.
Gruber and Erez nail the notes with precision, but miss the
soul behind them.