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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 [25:15]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 [27:17]
Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello)
Martin Helmchen (piano)
rec. Sendessaal, Bremen, Germany, 10-13 February 2014
ALPHA CLASSICS 223 [52:39]

The story goes that when Brahms first played the E minor sonata as accompanist to Josef Gänsbacher, the work’s dedicatee and an amateur cellist, Gänsbacher protested that Brahms was playing so loudly he couldn’t hear himself. “Lucky you!”, Brahms replied.

Apocryphal or not, such stories re-kindle intriguing thoughts about how these great works of the nineteenth century and before sounded in original performance, instruments aside, and whether the composers envisaged a perfection they might never see realised in their lifetimes. What, then, might Brahms have thought had he heard Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen performing both of his cello sonatas?

‘Perfection’ in music of course is a relative thing, where no two people might agree on the same criteria, let alone putting a value to them. It’s reasonable to assume, though, the majority will agree on what is good and bad playing, and with the current duo, married by the way, it’s very, very good. So good in fact I could only think of the 1983 Rostropovich and Serkin recording on DG as a worthy enough comparison.

Hecker and Helmchen have previously collaborated in Schubert’s Trout on Pentatone (review), and Helmchen has fronted other Pentatone releases of Mozart, Schumann and Dvořák works, as well as an LPO label Shostakovich concert. To underscore my choice for comparison, Hecker has also contributed to a remembrance disc for Rostropovich (review). That will do, however, for building expectations.

The first sonata’s gruff opening is nicely earthy from Hecker, while Rostropovich’s tone is more brooding, but the lyrical ascent to that initial climax is firmly with the passionate Russian. A difference in tempo is also apparent, Serkin perhaps allowing his companion more expressive rein. They take a minute and a half longer on this movement alone, increasing to five minutes across both sonatas. It would be easy at this stage to say the die is cast: all else being equal, Rostropovich is more intense and volatile, at tempi generally more expansive, with freer rubato. There’s more to it than that, though. Brahms gave his cello sonatas the title of “Sonatas for Piano and Violincello”, a clear indication of an equal partnership between the two instruments. It’s here where Hecker and Helmchen come into their own with a balance and harmony that seems entirely at one with the composer’s intentions. With Serkin and Rostropovich, good friends as they were, one senses a patrician tension between them, the cello’s long-breathed phrases perhaps giving an unfair advantage. I can happily take either approach, and within in the fugal discipline of the E minor’s final Allegro, both duos deliver with consummate mastery, scoring a dead-heat at least in duration.

The second cello sonata, typically for Brahms, didn’t come in a hurry after the first, with no less than his four symphonies filling the gap. While Robert Schumann described all Brahms’ chamber works as “veiled symphonies”, the F major sonata is even more informed by his symphonic thinking than the earlier work, with the addition of a fourth movement, and manifold challenges for each player, “pianistically possibly the most difficult chamber music work in the whole repertory” according to Helmchen. Probably the greatest compliment I could pay Hecker and Helmchen is to say that I simply didn’t notice any difficulty, but just revelled in their music-making. Again, when the musical argument is terser and tighter, there is close correlation with Rostropovich and Serkin, and where for example in the Adagio affettuoso movement there is more expressive scope, Rostropovich is predictably more expansive, taking a good minute longer. That’s not to say Hecker’s playing lacks anything in poetry or passion; quite the contrary, there’s a keen and finely nuanced command of rhythmic pulse and emotional temperature throughout, in close collaboration with her musical partner. Oh, and glorious tone, by the way.

This is Brahms playing of the highest order, in ideally balanced sound that very realistically projects both instruments into the listening environment. While Hecker and Helmchen do not replace the likes of Rostropovich and Serkin, they emphatically join them in the top echelon. Had he heard either duo, Brahms might well have exclaimed “Lucky me!”

Des Hutchinson



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