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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in G major, Op. 78 (1878/79) [27:07]
Sonata in D minor, Op. 108 (1886-88) [20:46]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata Arpeggione in A minor, D 821 (1824) [25:46]
Sonatina in D major, Op. 137/1, D 384 (1816) [12:06]
Johannes BRAHMS
Scherzo in C minor from FAE Sonata [5:17]
Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Paolo Giacometti (piano)
rec. 2018, Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, the Netherlands
EVIL PENGUIN CLASSIC EPRC0030 [47:53 + 43:09]

If you search for ‘Schubert Brahms Complete Duos’ on the bigger CD sales outlets this title is the only one to appear, so Evil Penguin and these fine artists have clearly found a rare gap in the market. There are of course alternative recordings to the works presented here, but we’ll come to those later.

These are of course mostly violin originals, so be warned if you are averse to these works played with cello, though you will be missing a treat. Recordings of Brahms’ Op. 78 sonata with cello are almost invariably transposed to D major in Paul Klengel’s composer-approved transcription, but this recording returns to the original G major. The D major version takes the cello lines higher in the first movement, so that the lyrical lines of that wonderful first movement project with more overt clarity and emphasis. With the G major tonality there is a more integrated feel between the piano and the cello, as well as a more rhetorical character to the sound. These differences are quite subtle and not necessarily a defining factor, but they are certainly of interest. Wispelwey and Giacometti fill this music with contrast and expressive depth, but are particularly good at seeking out its introspective character. The central Adagio is beautifully played here, the darker aspect of its inner drama emerging strongly. In the booklet interview Wispelwey mentions the advantages of having the piano part in its original key and, while some passages need to be played an octave higher, there is flexibility for choice of string at certain moments that brings the piece closer to the violin original - for instance in the final bars of the sonata, where the last high notes no longer need to be handed over to the piano.

Wispelwey has played Op. 78 often, but admits to adding Op. 108 to his repertoire specially for this recording. No key change is required here, and the work is well suited to the cello in most regards. Brahms’ late style is more austere and compact, but there is still a great deal of lyricism and pent-up drama in a work that explores emotion and noble sentiment in equal measure. The expansive melody of the Adagio is certainly touching in its dignity in this recording, contrasting with the ‘improbable energy and passion’ of the brief scherzo and final Presto agitato, here given just the right amount of theatricality without pushing beyond the bounds of tasteful decency.

The main two works by Schubert here are relatively ‘light’ works, the ‘Arpeggione’ sonata being described by Wispelwey as “on the gamut from charming to epic… the Arpeggione is more ‘Viennese-with-an-Italian touch’ than it is ‘titanic’.” With its “Schubertian song universe” character, particularly in the Adagio central movement there are expressive depths that defy the almost frivolous nature of the work elsewhere - all elements that serve to create its elusive nature. “Trying to play it beautifully is the only thing you can do. Beautiful enough is almost impossible.” As with the Brahms, Wispelwey and Giacometti have a keen enough ear for Schubert’s light and shade, pointing to and delivering crucial moments with understatement while by no means letting us off the hook when emotional punches need to land. Wispelwey and Giacometti have recorded this work before for the Onyx label, but this version is with fortepiano and makes an entirely different impression.

The same is true of the Sonatina D 384, a youthful work but one which easily outgrows the disposable nature its title might suggest. For Wispelwey “it remains fascinating to see how Schubert’s control of form and methods anticipate all of the great things that are to come later. It is only the scale and ambition that is much more modest in these early works.” In other words, the musicians treat this piece with the respect that they give every other work in this programme, without assuming for it a mantle of grandeur that it cannot carry. We are charmed and at times surprised as we would be by a piece by Mozart, and are invited to pick out the forward-looking moments of genius that make the music distinctive and personal. The Scherzo from the so-called FAE Sonata is by Brahms, though you wouldn’t know it from the information on the inner gatefold of this release, which follows it on from the Schubert without further change of composer. This is a novelty extra, taken from a sonata with each movement written by a different composer on the invitation of Robert Schumann. There is a little anticipation of Brahms in the last movement of the Sonatina D 384 so the transition isn’t too improbable, and while this last piece is more of an encore than anything and not Brahms’ best-ever music it has enough stormy energy to allow it to stand alone in its own right.

The acoustic of the Stadgehoorzaal in Leiden isn’t my favourite, but aside from some unwelcome sonic reflections at certain lower mid-range resonances works well enough in this chamber music. The detail of the recording picks up Wispelwey’s left hand tapping the strings onto the fingerboard and there is a certain amount of heavy breathing of these things bother you. There are few enough recordings of the Sonata Op. 78 played with cello in its original key to give this one a free pass. The alternative I know best for the Sonata Op. 108 is that with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on the Sony label, which is a touch more expansive than Wispelwey and Giacometti with the exception of the final Presto agitato, which has a similar urgency. If pinned for a preference I might still go for the older performance, but very much admire the dramatic edge given to this work by the newcomers. If you prefer your Brahms with a bit more Schumann-like nervousness then this recording will have your vote. Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata has been recorded frequently, and a superb alternative from cellist Antonio Meneses and pianist Gérard Wys on the Avie label (review) makes for a slightly more urbane and relaxed view of the Allegro Moderato first movement while still undercutting Wispeley and Giacometti by about a minute. They are at least as poetic in that Adagio central movement, and the effect of the recording gives the musicians more elbow-room. I would still be happy to have only this fine collection by Wispelwey and Giacometti, and as I’ve said you won’t find all of these pieces together in one place elsewhere. If you only seek particular works however, it always pays to shop around.

Dominy Clements

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