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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 [26:03]
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 [25:37]
André Navarra (cello)
Alfred Holeček (piano)
rec. Prague, 1961

Digitally re-mastered from Supraphon and Eterna LPs, these Brahms cello sonatas make a very welcome CD comeback. Many will be familiar with Navarra from his compelling recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, made with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra in 1957 – a version I much prefer to Sir John’s other outing with du Pré. I have been collecting Navarra’s recordings for some time. His traversal of the Bach Cello Suites and a fine reading of Schubert’s Arpeggione with Annie D’Arco, both issued on Calliope, are among my favourites.
Born 1911 in Biarritz, France, he started learning the cello aged 7. Two years later he was accepted as a student at the Toulouse Conservatory, where he graduated with first prize in 1924. He moved to the Paris Conservatory, where Jules Leopold-Loeb (cello) and Charles Arnould Tournemire (chamber music) completed his musical education. Again he took first prize aged 15. The Second World War brought about a musical hiatus, and he spent these years serving in the French Infantry. After the war he embarked on an international concert career. Teaching also became an important part of his life and he held several pedagogical posts in various European cities. He died in 1988.
What is immediately striking in these two sonata recordings is Navarra’s sense of style. He never over-indulges - a characteristic I found in his Elgar recording mentioned above. His flexible bow arm draws a large, full-bodied sound and opulent rich tone, allowing him the ability to project well. Maybe this strength derives from the fact that he was an expert middle-weight boxer in his youth. His opening statement of the Op. 99 is sweeping and imposing, showing him to be master of the grand gesture. Holeček is perfectly attuned to the cellist’s phrasing and dynamics, and both performers demonstrate a sense of shared purpose. My only slight reservation is the opening movement of the Op. 38 which I felt was a little tentative and didn’t flow as well as, say, the Fourier/Backhaus. Perhaps the tempo could have been ratcheted up a notch – but this is only a minor drawback.
The transfers are extremely well done — the LP copies used were obviously pristine. I was amazed to see the recording date as early 1961. They sound as though they were made much later, such is the vividness and clarity we hear. The Supraphon engineers have achieved an ideal balance between both instruments. One often finds the piano slightly recessed on recordings of this vintage, but here both cello and piano are on an equal footing. The acoustic - the venue is not identified - provides warmth and spaciousness.
I’ve always been enamoured of these two sonatas, as I am of all Brahms chamber works. The catalogue has many fine recordings and some of my best loved accounts are Fournier/Backhaus, Tortelier/Engel, du Pré/Barenboim and Shafran/Gottlieb. I have no hesitation in adding Navarra/ Holeček to this distinguished gathering.
Stephen Greenbank