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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor Op.38 (1865) [25:31]
Cello Sonata No.2 in F major Op.99 (1886) [27:20]
François Salque (cello)
Eric le Sage (piano)
rec. live 18 September 2019, Théâtre de Coulommiers, France
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
B RECORDS LBM028 [52:54]

This is volume 7 of B Records’ complete Brahms chamber music project. I have previously reviewed three of the earlier volumes and been highly impressed – review review review – but with this disc of the cello sonatas, we enter much more competitive terrain. I will begin by picking up a thread from my previous reviews of this project by posing a question: are these concert works or are they chamber music?

Practically speaking, in our times, these are concert works and this recording made in a concert hall is no exception. But it does not necessarily follow that this is how Brahms conceived them, writing, as he did, on the cusp of concert giving in the modern sense, but with the older tradition of private chamber concerts still in existence. I mention them because, very roughly, most recordings of this music tend to divide between what I think of as concert and chamber music. This present recording I would place very firmly in the chamber camp, whereas Jacqueline du Pré’s stirring account with Daniel Barenboim, for example, is most definitely a concert performance with du Pré playing both works like concertos and projecting right to the back row of the hall.

What Salque and Le Sage give us is a much more intimate affair. They are helped in this by the Maene piano, a hybrid of a modern concert grand and more characterful earlier pianos developed at the request of Daniel Barenboim. It was used only in the later volumes of this chamber music project but it is a pleasure to make its acquaintance again on this recording. It isn’t just a case of a lighter sound leavening Brahms’ characteristic handfuls of notes but of changing the balance between the two instruments. Even with all the stops out, Salque never has to strain to be heard over this piano. The feeling of really pushing a note, particularly in the upper range, is a real fingerprint of the concert approach to this music. It can be very exciting, as borne out by du Pré’s version of the opening movement of the second sonata, but I also find this level of intensity distorts the nature of this movement somewhat. By contrast Salque and Le Sage are more laidback, allowing the music to unfold more naturally.

At this stage, I want to make clear that I am an admirer of both approaches and I certainly wouldn’t want to be without du Pré’s barnstorming version. The issue with her set is the heaviness of Barenboim’s accompaniment in the more lyrical music. With the irresistible Le Sage, we get lightness of touch and of tone (from the Maene piano) but also a confiding and conversational relationship with the cellist. If we were talking literature Du Pré and Barenboim are epic where Salque and Le Sage are lyric verse. This is to undersell the work of the two Frenchmen, however; there is no lack of passion in that movement or in a furious account of the finale of the first sonata.

An exemplary blend of concert and chamber was achieved by the unlikely sounding combination of Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin on DG. Serkin’s classicism keeps Rostropovich free of excess and the great Russian cellist brings out the imaginative intelligence of his partner at his best. It remains my yardstick recording with its combination of boldness and intimacy.

Salque and Le Sage can’t quite match the bold theatricality of Rostropovich and Serkin but they can equal their subtlety in penetrating the deep core of this music. I feel that the first sonata is too often damned with faint praise and the French pair clearly love it. Both Salque and Le Sage and Rostropovich and Serkin take their time with it, which helps enormously. Hidden behind a rather austere façade lurks a lot of Brahms’ most poetic inspiration. Listen to Le Sage’s almost Schubertian way with the burbling piano figures that accompany the second subject of the opening movement. They find delicacy and grace in the minuet-like middle movement that shifts the balance of the work away from the severe and Teutonic. Bearing in mind that Brahms was only 29 when he started on this sonata, what we get on this recording is an appropriate sense of Romantic fantasy that is by turns Gothic, poetic and occasionally grotesque. Even the finale, based on a theme from Bach’s Art of Fugue, has the manic intensity of one of ETA Hoffmann’s demented kapellmeisters.

The second sonata comes from more than 20 years later and straddles the composer’s maturity and his late period. It immediately follows the last two symphonies and is built on an almost symphonic scale – another dimension of the concert versus chamber question. If it does look back to those large-scale works, it also looks forward to the more allusive, aphoristic works of Brahms’ last years. It is this latter style that Salque and Le Sage bring out so acutely. Their introverted way with the slow movement opens this movement out into somewhere both strange and wonderful. The climax doesn’t lack anything in emotional impact but that climax seems to grow more organically out of the withdrawn song of the rest of the movement and Salque’s pizzicatos are deliciously liquid where most rivals seem intent on breaking the strings. Delicacy, poise, sensitivity and great beauty of sound – it is simultaneously the heart of their account and wholly typical of their way with the rest. You wouldn’t know from a lot of other accounts that the scherzo of this work is marked mezza voce, yet played this way its passionate, fugitive nature is, as here, more fully revealed. An interior world rather than a public arena.

This is another tremendous addition to this chamber music project but more than that it is a serious contender in a crowded field. It manages to find something new to say that gives us another view of these remarkable works – a lighter, more fantastical approach that, so to speak, gets past the grumpy old bearded Brahms to his passionate beating heart. It joins du Pré, Rostropovich and YoYo Ma with Emmanuel Ax in my list of recommendations for these pieces but adds its own distinct voice.

David McDade

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