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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor Op. 38 (1862-65) [25:20]
5 Klavierstücke Op. 76 (No, 1, 1871, the rest 1878) [15:05]
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F Major Op. 99 (1886) [26:28]
Kate Bennett Wadsworth (cello)
Yi-heng Yang (piano)
rec. 2017, Second Church, Newton, USA
DEUX-ELLES DXL1181 [66:53]

Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor Op. 38 (1862-65) [27:33]
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F Major Op. 99 (1886) [28:07]
Two Songs for Alto, Viola (or Cello) and Piano Op. 91 (p.1884) [11:00]
The Fischer Duo
Abigail Fischer (mezzo-soprano)
rec. 2015/16, Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, USA
CENTAUR CRC3648 [66:39]

I have always thought it strange that Brahms composed relatively few works that gave the cello a prominent position, especially when we remember that he was a student of the instrument. The two cello sonatas were composed over an interval of more than twenty years and display the differing aspects of Brahms’ compositional development, with the Op. 38 displaying his classical romanticism, whilst the Op. 91 portrays the composer in his more progressive style. Here we have two recordings of his main contributions to the cello repertoire, the two cello sonatas, but here given in quite different approaches.

The E minor Cello Sonata was composed over a prolonged period, with the first two movements being written in the summer of 1862 along with an Adagio which he rejected, with this music later being absorbed into the F Major Sonata. The third and final movement was composed in 1865, with the work being dedicated to a singing professor and amateur cellist, Josef Gänsbacher. The music of this Sonata intended reflects the abilities of the intended dedicatee, with its lyrical writing being largely centred on the middle and lower registers of the instrument. It also has some contrapuntal sections that point to the music of an earlier age, as well as a fugal section in the first movement that is broadly based upon the final movement of J S Bach’s Art of Fugue. In contrast the F Major Sonata, composed in 1886, is far more demanding of the cellist and pianist alike; it was inspired by the virtuosic performances of Robert Hausmann, who had popularised the First Sonata and would give the premiere, along with Joseph Joachim, of the Double Concerto the following year. This is by far the more original sonata of the two, which can be seen from the outset of the first movement, with the cello’s fragmented opening theme being played over the tremolo of the piano; there are also no half measures here, with the Sonata encompassing the full range of the cello.

As to the performances both are very good, the husband and wife team, the Fischer Duo offering the kind of performance that we have become accustomed to, stately and elegant with a big sound reminiscent of modern performance practice, whilst Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Yi-heng Yang look back to the performing practices of Brahms’ day, employing a gut strung cello and an 1875 Streicher piano which is a similar model to that owned by Brahms himself. As a result, the Fischer Duo offer a slower paced performance, one which is stately and well measured, one that stands up well to comparison to similar performances. However, with Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Yi-heng Yang you get a sense of risk-taking and of a real performance, their recording of the first movement of the E minor alone is a minute and a half quicker than the Fischer’s, giving their performance an added excitement. I do prefer the period approach, although I do have recordings of both approaches, with this recording soon becoming my favourite of the historically informed performances. The sound of the Streicher piano suites the work well, it has a sound which, while smaller than the Steinway D employed by Jeanne Kierman, is in no way inferior; this is not the sound of a forte piano, but of an early grand, ideally partnered with the cello of Kate Bennett Wadsworth.

Of the fillers, the Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano Op. 91, which are given here in their version with cello, are sung really well by Abigail Fischer, who is herself a cellist. Whist she is better known as an interpreter of more modern repertoire, she seems at home hear; sadly no song texts nor translations are included. As to the Klavierstücke Op. 76, performed by Yi-heng Yang, I have to ask why only the first five of this set of eight pieces is included, after all there is room left for the other three, this is really my only gripe about this recording.

So, to sum up, if it is a contemporary performance played on modern instruments one is looking for, then the Fischer Duo offer a very good performance. However, if it is a more historically informed performance that is of interest, then the performance of Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Yi-heng Yang is the one to have. But there is more to it than this, with Kate Bennett Wadsworth and Yi-heng Yang offering a recording that draws you into the performance; yes there is the odd occasion when their playing is a little less secure than that of the Fischer Duo, but for sheer excitement their performance is a clear winner.

Stuart Sillitoe

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