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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
6 Cello Duos
C major, Book 3, Op.53 [13:28]
A minor, Book 2, Op.53 [7:32]
B flat major, Book 1, Op.53 [13:02]
E major, Book 2, Op. 54 [15:51]
B minor, Book 2, Op.51 [10:35]
C major Op. 52 [9:06]
Xavier Phillips, Anne Gastinel (cellos)
rec. 2019, Église Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, Paris

I think it would be safe to assume that if one played the word association game with a large gathering of music lovers, one would have to wait a long time before someone said, as his or her immediate response to the name Offenbach – “cello”.

It doesn’t seem to be widely known that Offenbach’s earliest fame was as a cellist. Born Jakob Offenbach in Cologne, the composer was the grandson of Isaac Juda Eberst who taught music in Offenbach-on-Main. Jakob’s father, also called Isaac Juda taught music and worked as a bookbinder in Cologne, as well as serving as Cantor for the Jewish community. The family name was changed to Offenbach. Isaac the younger and his wife produced ten children (7 daughters and 3 sons). Jakob was the second son and the seventh child. All were brought up in the Jewish traditions, and all seem to have shown a talent for music – Jakob most of all. He was a competent violinist by the age of 6 and was composing at the age of 8. Lewis Stevens, in his Composers of Classical Music of Jewish Descent (2005, p.278) tells an interesting story: “When the family wanted to play a Haydn quartet and lacked a cellist, Jakob who had been secretly practicing, took the cello part”. He must have been little more than 6 or 7 when this happened, since it was not until he was 9 that he began lessons on the cello. He was soon playing well enough to form a trio, with his sister Isabella (piano) and brother Julius (violin), which played in the cafes and bars of Cologne. When Jakob was 14, his father decided that the family should move to Paris believing, firstly, that his sons would be able to get a better musical education there and, secondly, that Jews were treated more tolerantly there (from 1795 Jews were treated as full citizens of France, were free to practice their religion and were permitted to follow any trade or profession). Once in Paris the young Offenbachs Frenchified their names, Jakob becoming Jacques and Julius taking the name ‘Jules’. Both were admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. Jacques, however, soon became bored with life as a student and sought professional work as a cellist. Before long he found work in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. The two brothers became acquainted with Halévy (1799-1862), who was also the son of a German Jew. Halévy was impressed by the two brothers, perhaps by Jacques in particular, and gave them lessons in composition. The young cellist was also introduced to Friedrich Flotow, then living and working in Paris, and through his influence, Jacques began to give recitals in some of the most significant Parisian salons. His first public concert was given in Paris in January 1939. He paid a visit to London, during which he played alongside Joachim and Mendelssohn. According to Stevens (p.279) one British writer, after hearing Offenbach, wrote that he was “on the violoncello what Paganini was on the violin”.

Having established his reputation as a master of the instrument – the booklet notes of this CD (unsigned as far as I can see) tell us that in Paris he was “nicknamed the Liszt of the cello” – Offenbach published a Cours méthodique de duos pour deux violencelles, which appeared in six volumes, numbered Opp. 49-54, between 1839 and 1855. The pieces in the volumes were graded according to difficulty, from ‘A’ (the easiest) to ‘F’ (the most technically difficult). Of the pieces played on this CD, the first three (in order of hearing, as it were), being graded ‘E’, the fourth ‘F’, the fifth ‘C’ and the sixth and last ‘D’. The result makes for fascinating and delightful listening.

Though I can think of duos for 2 cellos by Franz Danzi and David Popper (and there are, no doubt, more of which I am ignorant), it has to be said that this not a ‘form’ which has a rich history, musically speaking. I would be a poor judge of how effective Offenbach’s duos are as ‘learning aids’; but I do feel able to say that hearing these six duos played by two such distinguished cellists as Phillips and Gastinel – and played with almost audible pleasure one soon forgets that each of them is part of a ‘methodical course’ and sits back attentively to enjoy them for their own sakes. Even the simplest of these pieces are not without their sophisticated touches and the more advanced duos, in which virtuosity is rewarded with some music rich in poetry, (as in the attractively meditative second movement of one of the duos in C major from Opus 52 marked cantabile(track 14), or the jaunty allegretto which immediately follows it (track 15). Offenbach’s absolute familiarity with the instrument enables him to create some beautiful colours, from golden top notes to delightfully dark blue bottom notes; all of which these two fine cellists clearly relish.

This isn’t music which deeply engages the emotions (though some of the slow movements are quietly affecting in their melancholy). But it intrigues the mind and (not surprisingly, since this Offenbach) there is some musical wit. One of the delights of these duos is the skill with which the roles of ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’ are switched between the two cellists, sometimes unexpectedly. As Xavier Phillips puts it in the course of a discussion between himself and Anne Gastinel in the CD booklet “You have to be in a sharing mode, and that’s probably where Offenbach shows himself to be an innovator. We’re not dealing here with a classic soloist/accompanist scheme, but with an incessant give-and-take”.

Exact contemporaries (they were born in the same year), Phillips and Gastinel are perhaps the major French cellists of their generation. They had never, apparently, played together before preparing for this recording; yet they work superbly together, sounding utterly compatible and fruitfully in dialogue throughout. As noted above they seemed to have enjoyed the experience of playing this music and they get the good recorded sound that they deserve; all concerned have made a very powerful case for the music’s interest far beyond students of the cello.

Don’t, please, be put off by the fact that these duos are taken from what is called a ‘methodical course’. This is music which transcends its original ostensibly didactic purpose.

Glyn Pursglove

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