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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Cello Sonata in A minor, op. 36 [27:50]
Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900)
Cello Sonata No. 3, op. 94 [25:25]
Martin Ostertag (cello)
Fany Solter (piano)
No information provided
Reviewed as lossless download
SWR MUSIC SWR10161 [53:15]

Gustav JENNER (1865-1920)
Cello Sonata in D major [23:55]
Friedrich KIEL (1821-1885)
Cello Sonata in A minor, op. 52 [28:03]
Martin Ostertag (cello)
Fany Solter (piano)
No information provided
Reviewed as lossless download
SWR MUSIC SWR10162 [51:58]

The SWR Music label is the recording arm of the Southwest German Broadcasting Company, and partners Hänssler Classics in many CD releases. It also has a digital sub-label, which provides download-only releases, of which these are two examples. I am not sure whether they are sourced from radio broadcasts, as no information is provided, and when I say no information, I mean it. This is not an instance of a download not coming with its booklet; there is no booklet at all, not even some online details.

These two releases interested me because of the obscure repertoire. I had never heard of Gustav Jenner, and while there is no indication that this is a premiere recording of his cello sonata, I can find no other. Few would suggest that chamber music was Edvard Grieg’s best genre, but his sonata is well represented with over 30 recordings. Herzogenberg’s music has been championed by the CPO label, and his three sonatas appear on one of their CDs (999625-2). Curiously, the same recording, by Hermann & Sasaki, appears on some online retail sites under the banner of SWR Musik (SWR10147) as well as CPO. This third sonata has also been recorded as part of a Hänssler series, The Contemporaries of Brahms, featuring the fine young German cellist, Johannes Moser (CD93207). The Kiel sonata has also been recorded before on MDG (6121161).

I had not heard the Grieg before, and unfortunately this performance only hinted that it was a work which deserved more attention. The first movement had little of the agitato that its tempo marking decreed, and while there was a lovely soulfulness to the slow movement, the start of the final movement made me think of the Keystone Cops. It was only when I listened to the competition, led by the great Truls Mørk with Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Erato), that its qualities emerged. Played properly, there is real anxiety in the allegro agitato opening to the first movement; listen to Emmanuelle Bertrand and Pascal Amoyal (Harmonia Mundi) and I guarantee you will feel quite tense. Mork and Thibaudet make the lyrical second subject really sing, and there is something almost French about their slow movement. The slapstick nature of the third movement opening is still there, but it has a musical quality as well that Osterag and Solter don’t capture.

Heinrich von Herzogenberg was Austrian, with a family heritage of French nobility. He married a cherished pupil of Brahms and the couple remained friends with the great man. However, Brahms rarely spoke well of Herzogenberg’s works – there is the suggestion that he was very jealous of the marriage – and my first reaction to this sonata was that Brahms’ assessment was quite accurate. I felt the first movement was dull and uninteresting, not helped by the awful sound of the piano, especially in the crescendos. There was even a moment when I wondered it was out of tune. The other movements were somewhat better, but still this wasn’t a work that I felt had much to say. I gave it another chance the next day, and also listened to the Moser version, and was forced to revise my opinion substantially. I found myself humming the main first movement melody, which had seemed so dull in the Ostertag version. The piano part was now a happy skipping tune. The timings differ greatly between the two versions, in part due to repeats being taken or not – Ostertag observes the one in the first but not the third, Moser the opposite – but also the much fleeter of foot rendition by the latter.

All things considered, even if you are an aficionado of Grieg or Herzogenberg, this would remain a disc to avoid. I thus approached the second disc with some trepidation.

Gustav Jenner was the only formal composition student taken on by Brahms. He went on to work as a conductor and educator, but as with Herzogenberg, Brahms was unstinting in his criticism. The sonata begins with a quite beautiful cantabile melody for the cello, though the muffled sound quality somewhat detracts from the beauty. The second subject is a contrast as it should be, but much less inspired, with a rather clomping piano part. The slow movement, a set of variations, is amiable, but too long at over nine minutes. Unfortunately, the downward trend in terms of quality continues in the final movement, which has little going for it.

Friedrich Kiel is best remembered, if at all, as the teacher in Berlin of Charles Stanford. His piano concerto appears in the Hyperion Romantic Concerto series and was reviewed with enthusiasm by Rob Barnett. Chamber music was his main mode of expression, and a contemporary critic described his works as a “a never-failing source of delight”. Michael Cookson reviewed the CPO recoding of his three piano quartets. I didn’t find much to enthuse in the first movement, which seemed like a lot of activity without much purpose, not helped by a rather strained tone from the cello. The other movements – this is the only one of these four works in four movements – show a little more promise, but again I fear that the rather heavy-handed performances are not showing this work to its best.

Martin Ostertag is a former student of André Navarra, with a number of recordings for MDG and Naxos of music ranging from Bach to Penderecki. His playing on a disc of Schumann cello works was well regarded (review). Fany Solter, Brazilian by birth, recorded the chamber music of Chopin on Antes Edition in the 1990s. They are both academics at the Karlsruhe Hochschule für Musik. I’m afraid I find their performances unsatisfactory, especially in the Grieg and Herzogenberg, where the competition wipes the floor with them. It suggests that there may be greater qualities in the Kiel and Jenner than revealed here, but in the case of the latter, this is the only game in town.

David Barker



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