This is one of those rare discs that surprises as much as it delights. It has been a long time since I last listened to Brahms' cello sonatas so intently and with so much enjoyment. Paul Watkins and Ian Brown commanded my attention, not with declamatory statements but by making me complicit in an act of discovery. This is familiar music, yet suddenly new. I didn't want to make comparisons to Rostropovich/Serkin or Isserlis/Hough
or any other duo. I wanted to hear how the next phrase would sound, how Watkins would respond to Brown's unexpectedly light touch here, how Brown would respond to Watkins' sudden outpouring of tone there. They kept me on the edge of my seat and they kept me smiling.
There are many great performances of these sonatas, but I cannot recall a set of such flexibility and nuance or of such generous interplay between equals. Watkins and Brown take their time. Nothing is rushed. Everything is expressive. The first movement of the first sonata, often a single outpouring, here takes a more variegated course through its 14 minutes. The second movement dances lightly, equal parts rakish charms and stately grace. The third movement is perhaps a little less robust than usual, but gains from Watkins' and Brown's subtlety.
The second sonata is also less demonstratively emotional than I am used to hearing or perhaps less consistently demonstrative. The first and third movements may be a shade deliberate, but the deliberation allows for shading that is so much more interesting than speed and volume. The second movement is ravishing and the finale radiates joy.
Interposed between the two sonatas, Brahms' Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano is an unusual and generous coupling. The singularity of vision among the three musicians is utterly compelling. Listening to these four movements is like eavesdropping on a long conversation between old friends. There is intimacy, whimsy, a touch of sadness and, in the fourth movement, some contention, as cello, clarinet and piano talk to and over each other. Michael Collins' gorgeous tone and eloquent contribution enhance this disc's already considerable attractions.
The acoustic of Potton Hall is captured beautifully by the Chandos sound engineer Jonathan Cooper. I often find that chamber music recordings that sound wonderful over speakers are uncomfortably close when heard through headphones, or that recordings that sound naturally through headphones become diffuse on the bigger rig. This recording sounds ideally intimate whichever way you listen.
Chandos has lavished its typical care on presentation, with a lengthy and helpful liner-note by Calum MacDonald interspersed in translation with photographs of the artists. I like the cover photo too. It reflects the performances. It is Vienna — old Vienna, with cobblestone streets. Today's Vienna, graffiti-tagged and on the move. This is the Brahms Watkins, Brown and Collins give us: an old master, sounding fresher than ever.