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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Cello Sonata No.1 in D major Op. 12 [19:22]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Two Pieces for cello & piano (Prelude & Oriental Dance), Op. 2 [9:05]
Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 in C sharp minor [4:38]
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 [37:41]
Bruno Philippe (cello)
Jérôme Ducros (piano)
rec. 2018, La Courroie, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, France
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902340 [70:51]

If Myaskovsky is now remembered now at all, it is for his 27 symphonies, but his list of works includes 13 string quartets, 9 piano sonatas, and 2 cello sonatas. He is one of those once prominent Russian composers, like Weinberg, kept alive these days less by concert performances than by recordings. His cello music, (two sonatas, one concerto) is amongst his most recorded pieces, according to the discography in Gregor Tassie’s study of Myaskovsky (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Of this First Cello Sonata from 1911, Tassie says, it “belongs to the most successful works of Myakovsky’s pre-war phase and evokes the pastoral atmosphere he so loved.” That 1911 score was revised in 1930, and it is that second version which is recorded here.

The first impression the listener gets is that Bruno Philippe draws a fabulous sound from his cello, rich and warm in the opening Adagio section of the first movement, where his singing line commands attention. Jérôme Ducros’ piano has only a few supportive chords at this point, but soon he, too, contributes to the musical argument, with his introduction of the attractively lyrical first theme. The percussive chord piano figure at 2:35 is curt and cryptic, and the movement blossoms with an effective balance between the instruments as tension rises and both parts become much busier. There is plenty of audible give and take between them in true chamber music style not only here, but throughout the disc. The second and final movement follows without a break, and the molto piu lento episode is nicely contemplative, the artists sounding as one. At 09:20 there is a very passionate climax where Philippe soars into the top of the cello register with great security and refined tone.

The Myaskovsky has some affinity of mood with Rachmaninov’s 1901 Cello Sonata, without ever really sounding like that of the older master. The opening Lento is here hesitant, emergent, the piece blinking into the light, until the Allegro moderato is launched with piano chords and a lyrical melody on cello. The second subject is more lyrical still, treated simply by the pianist, while the cellist brings a more elegiac manner. They repeat the exposition too, making for a first movement nearly 14 minutes long. The scherzo bounds along, its opening reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlking in the drive Ducros brings to the repeated notes theme, with its moments of lyrical reflection relished by Philippe. In fact, he often seems to risk a Faustian fate by saying to the passing moment, “linger awhile, though art so fair” - but there is always a sense of good taste and concern for the bigger picture too.

The slow movement is also set in motion by the pianist quite simply, while the cellist is a touch more indulgent. Philippe brings at times a wonderfully withdrawn, inward manner, taking his sound down to a mere thread of tone at 3:24 for instance. He really can make his instrument almost speak at such times. In the great finale, Philippe once again manages the briefest of lyrical rubati within the main theme, perfectly judged. In fact, his musical judgement is always persuasive in this work. Ducros is an able and equal partner too, even if his playing does not always catch the ear in the way others have done – but then this piece has been recorded by some of the great Rachmaninov pianists, such as Hough, Ashkenazy, and Lugansky. I have a good friend of many years who was a professional cellist and she still adheres to her dislike of this work, perversely claiming it is a piano sonata with obbligato cello. It doesn’t sound like that here, so captivating is the cello playing. The inimitable big tune exactly one minute into the finale, one of Rachmaninov’s most memorable, is perfectly delivered in terms of tone, tempo, and phrasing – ravishing cello playing. I have no written notes on the performance after that, since I simply had to stop scribbling and listen, and I recommend that you hear this too, if the programme appeals.

The extras are a lovely account of Rachmaninov’s Op. 2 pieces for cello and piano, the oriental dance in particular a delightful piece of lightweight Russian exoticism. The one piano solo, a perfectly good account of the ubiquitous C sharp minor Prelude, seems superfluous in this programme, and is there perhaps because it comes from the next opus number. The sound is very good throughout, with a very slight backward balance to the piano. The booklet notes are good, with enough details on the music for a change. I don’t know of a direct comparison to this disc, though Truls Mork has a 2CD set of Russian cello sonatas on Virgin which has both the two main works, as well as the Rachmaninov Op. 2 pieces, for half the price of this issue, but I have not heard that. For the Miaskovsky, I know only the excellent bargain Regis issue of a Russian recording on which Marina Tarasova plays both of his Cello Sonatas and his Cello Concerto, his best-known piece. There are plenty of very good accounts of the Rachmaninov sonata, right from Rostropovich at the start of the stereo era, but for now this will be the one I will listen to.

Roy Westbrook

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