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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor, Op. 19 (1901) [36:59]
Vocalise, Op. 34/14 (1912) [5:55]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 119 (1949) [25:20]
Hee-Young Lim (Cello)
Nathalia Milstein (Piano)
rec. 2018 Leibniz Saal, Hannover, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 80358118497 [68:14]

These two sonatas have been disc mates countless times and thus this new Sony Classical CD goes up against plentiful competition. But both young performers here have already earned impressive credentials in their relatively brief careers, giving indication they are ready to meet this daunting challenge. Born in 1987 in Seoul, South Korea, Hee-Young Lim has studied at several important music schools, including the New England Conservatory, Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt and Paris Conservatory. She has won outright or captured a high prize in a number of prestigious competitions, but the posts she has managed to obtain are perhaps more telling: in 2015 she was appointed principal cellist in the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin; and in 2018 she took up a professorship in cello at Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Her first recording on Sony Classical was titled French Cello Concertos, with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Scott Yoo, that featured works by Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Milhaud, Offenbach and Massenet.

Born in Lyon in 1995, Nathalia Milstein also has an imposing educational resume, with studies at several important music schools, including Geneva University of Music, where her teachers included Nelson Goerner. She has also had studies with Andras Schiff, Manahem Pressler and Jean-Marc Luisada. She won the 2015 Dublin International Piano Competition and has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw and other important venues. She has made two previous recordings, both with her violinist sister Maria Milstein on the Mirare label: La Sonate de Vinteuil that featured works by Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Hahn and Pierné; and a Ravel album, Voyageur Ravel.

On this Sony CD each performer plays with a naturalness, a rapport with her partner that divulges a knowing sense of give-and-take—predominant here, deferential there, equally balanced elsewhere, and generally in a manner that best suits the music. Some might think of these works as “cello sonatas with piano,” but the piano has much to say in both, especially in the Rachmaninov, a piece the composer purportedly designed with equal roles for the instrumentalists. But actually the piano's is arguably somewhat more substantial, besides being very difficult.

The Prokofiev Sonata is often viewed as very mellow, written to satisfy the Soviet cultural bosses and their “Socialist Realism,” a catch-all term for art that is not progressive but easy for the common man and woman to grasp. But while this sonata is very tuneful and fairly accessible, it also has an expressive depth and rather dark side some people will overlook: there is a sort of valedictory air to the work, even a sense of resignation, calm resignation. These impressions come especially at the end when the first movement's opening theme returns and seems to wind down to reach a finality, a grand good-bye. The two players here capture this sense in the music's emotional demeanor, while never overlooking the detours to joyful and chipper moods. Thus, they point up the ominous character of the music at the beginning of the first movement with a measured tempo and dynamics alert to its growing tension. They quickly adjust to the warmer, brighter world of the big lyrical theme that follows by imparting a gentleness to its flow while allowing it at times to grow almost into a passionate outpourring. They give lift to the brief playful moments that intersperse as well, but never miss the ominous feeling that intrudes throughout.

In the second movement Scherzo they capture quite incisively the joyful, fantasy-like character, but don't overplay it with exaggerated accenting, a common fault in some performances. Here Ms. Milstein doesn't add too much weight to her dynamics in the piano's bass notes, either. In fact, throughout the entire work, one notices her tendency to avoid a percussive sound, something that wouldn't fit this sonata well. They play the slow theme in the trio beautifully, as Ms. Lim's 1730 Carlo Antonio Testore cello soars to the heavens. Ditto for its counterpart in the finale, where Lim delivers an arresting account of this lovely theme and then moves to the background as Milstein gently plays this melody on single notes with equal sensitivity. The players harness the seemingly joyful moments in the finale most effectively and the ending comes on with a sense of inevitability, as the feeling of farewell and finality arrives ineluctably in a sweeping manner.

Their Prokofiev is quite fine then, but their Rachmaninov is perhaps even better. The players are perfectly attuned to the older composer's more straightforward and heart-on-sleeve manner. The sonata opens with plenty of brooding atmosphere evident (Lento), thanks to their well judged dynamics and subtle use of rubato. The main theme comes on proudly and in an appropriately stormy manner. Milstein plays with a bit more weight in her dynamics here and throughout much of the work. Both performers mesh the sound of their instruments in proper proportion, effectively capturing the sadness and yearning of the alternate theme. They go on to deliver a spirited, fiery account of the development section.

Lim and Milstein produce a thrilling rendition of the ensuing Allegro Scherzando, imparting a breathless excitement with their driven tempo and deft accenting of the main theme. The two lyrical themes (one in the main section, the other in the Trio) are both imaginatively and sensitively phrased. The third movement is pure magic with both instruments exchanging beautiful renditions of one of Rachmaninov's most memorable themes. Their finale is colorful and utterly brilliant, the players perfectly capturing the joy of the main theme, as well as the passion and beauty of the Cantabile melody. The arrangement of Vocalise here is quite fitting for the cello and piano. Lim and Milstein deliver a stellar performance of it with just the right tempo, avoiding the temptation to play it more slowly, an approach that generally doesn't work as well. The sound reproduction on this recording is quite fine, but at times I find bit of shrillness in the piano's upper notes. Still, it's overall quite good, more than adequate.

When this CD was issued I thought it was a little surprising because Sony already had Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in their catalogue playing the very same sonatas on a 1991 release. Well, actually it's not so surprising because Ma and Ax, while quite exciting and compelling in many ways, don't quite gel effectively in this pair of works, producing reasonably good but not outstanding performances. Before continuing with other comparisons among the competition, let me say that I'll deal here with just recordings pairing both sonatas, rather than ones where each work is presented with other repertory.

Of the half-dozen recordings that I have containing these two sonatas, the best are the Moser/Korobeinikov on Pentatone, Thedéen/Pöntinen on BIS and this new one by Lim and Milstein. The von Bülow/Westergaard on Danacord would be in the running but the first movement repeat in the Rachmaninov is skipped, not a good decision in my view. The Thedéen/Pöntinen accounts are brilliant and very dynamic but lack some of the subtlety found in the Lim/Milstein performances here. Still, it's very hard to pick a winner, so I'll only say this new Sony CD offers performances that, at the very least, compete with the best. A splendid account of Vocalise is also in its favor, because only the Moser/Korobeinikov from this group has additional music, two brief transcriptions.

Robert Cummings

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