I don’t think anyone will quite get to the bottom of why this recording of Beethoven’s Op.69 sonata isn’t as comprehensively fine as it might have been. I think even Feuermann’s greatest and most uncritical admirers would agree that his collaboration with Myra Hess - his only studio recording of a Beethoven sonata - was not a genuine success. Clearly EMI wanted to pair the great cellist with a musician of equal stature. The company’s affiliates in America and - indeed especially - Japan would have been particular on this point. As with another, later celebrity pairing - Piatigorsky and Solomon, who recorded all the sonatas - things didn’t quite work out as well as was hoped. I’m not aware that Feuermann had ever worked with Hess, whose esteem would have outstripped even his at the time. Thus the cachet of Hess at the keyboard, even to so punctilious and indeed supercilious a man as Feuermann, would have been significant.
I’ve read in Annette Moreau’s biography of the cellist that Hess actually sent Feuermann home during the recording, so poorly was he playing - and if this happened it must have been on 28 June, the first day of recording. They reconvened the following day to complete the sonata, and later on the cellist started to record the Arpeggione Sonata, but this time with Gerald Moore at the piano. This undertaking was completed on 30 June. The Beethoven sonata was largely shorn of exposition repeats - though there’s a degree of inconsistency as to which repeats were jettisoned and which were kept. More to the point Feuermann doesn’t sound relaxed. Hess was invariably uneasy in the studio; they’d never worked together, and co-ordination was clearly an issue. The signs were not good, and the performance is invariably uneven, not least in terms of the cellist’s tone and also interpretively.
Yet when one turns to the Schubert, it’s another story. Feuermann and Moore had worked together, the recording is far more idiomatic and relaxed, and the cellist phrases and plays beautifully. There’s none of the tension that afflicts him in the scherzo of the Beethoven, for instance. There’s a brief cut in the Allegretto finale.
The Brahms Sonata - he didn’t record No.2 - was recorded in 1934 with the Dutch pianist Theo van der Pas, though sardonic listeners might be forgiven for thinking that the recording engineers at Abbey Road Studio No.1 misread the work as a sonata for solo cello, so backwardly is van der Pas placed. Contemporary critics noticed this - one is cited in the brief notes to this release - but it’s something that was prone to happen at Abbey Road in the mid-thirties. Mark Obert-Thorn has done all he can sensitively to transfer this, and he has done an excellent job. Only Pristine’s Andrew Rose and his re-balancing tools could really create a realistic balance between the two instruments. He’s done that before in some releases and whilst it represents a very interventionist approach to the original artefact - it is, in effect, an act of idealisation - this is a recording that might warrant it. Note that here too exposition repeats are missing.
This leaves the Reger Suite, which really is for solo cello and was recorded in 1939. I always use this as a litmus test for solo cello Reger discs I’m sent to review. No one has yet managed to vest such vibrancy, colour and rhythmic charge in the composer’s cello suites. Feuermann had had long experience of the Reger suites and had first performed this one as far back as 1921. His experience is revealed in every bar.
There have been a number of transfers of these recordings. Pearl’s had a lot of surface noise and some were transferred a semi-tone high. They were also a bit boomy, and liable to a bit of blasting. These latest, on the contrary, are thoroughly effective and recommendable.
Previous review: Stephen