Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonata No. 1.
Cello Sonata in F.
Cello Sonata No. 3
Johannes Moser (vc); Paul Rivinius (pn)
HÄNSSLER 93207 (79:09)
Volume 1 in this series titled “Brahms and his Contemporaries” was enthusiastically recommended in 31:2. That release (Hänssler 93206), also with Moser and Rivinius, paired cello sonatas by Robert Fuchs and Zemlinsky with
Brahms’s Second Cello Sonata. In the current offering, Brahms’s First Cello Sonata is coupled with sonatas by Herzogenberg (probably Brahms’s closest imitator) and Richard Strauss. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch, I think, to call either Zemlinsky (1871–1942) or Strauss (1864–1949) “contemporaries” of Brahms. Though the first two or three decades of their lives did overlap the last two or three decades of Brahms’s life, their musical paths evolved in rather different directions.
The Brahms Sonata, being the most widely known and recorded work on the disc, requires the least comment, save for its performance. A slight rhythmic unsteadiness is heard at the outset, as if Moser and Ravinius were not quite sure of each other’s tempo; but it is quickly resolved by the second measure, and it does not recur in the exposition repeat, which is taken. Moser’s tone is voluminous and verges on the voluptuous, not a bad thing in this score; but the overall reading, while I would not call it rushed, somehow comes across as a bit perfunctory. If you didn’t know the piece well and didn’t have a dozen or more recordings of it in your collection, you would find nothing about it to nitpick; but Brahms’s E-Minor Cello Sonata is the most frequently played and recorded of all cello sonatas—surpassing even Beethoven’s in numbers of recordings—and competing for your dollars are the likes of Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, Starker, Wispelwey, Mørk, and Yo-Yo Ma, to name just a few. None of those mentioned, however, is my top choice for this work. That award goes to cellist Nancy Green and Frederick Moyer on JRI Recordings (111) not only for the most enrapturing performance I know, but for one of the most stunning duo sonata recordings I’ve ever heard.
Though Strauss’s F-Major Cello Sonata is an early work (1883) dating from the period before he found his own voice, it still bears little or no resemblance to Brahms. For one thing, it’s a much more extroverted, optimistic piece, filled with the strut and swagger of youthful confidence. Orchestrated, its opening measures might call to mind pre-echos of
. For another thing, the piece gives the impression of being less tightly organized than the Brahms, with episodic passages of soaring lyricism, gorgeous as they are, tending to destabilize the underlying sonata-allegro structure. The Andante ma non troppo is one of those movements that achieves nostalgically introspective effect not through any lyrical outpouring but through a protracted conversational exchange of broken non-melodic phrases between cello and piano. The concluding movement returns to the striding gait of the first movement. Strauss’s Sonata is not without other recordings—Ma with Ax being noteworthy—but Moser, with his huge tonal palette and dynamic range strikes me as the ideal choice in this score.
The weakest entry on the disc, musically speaking, is Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Cello Sonata No. 3. When he wrote it at the age of 52 in 1895, he was trying to shed his reputation as little more than a Brahms sycophant and imitator. The problem was that Herzogenberg aspired to be a composer, but lacking the natural talent for it, he tried to capture the essence of Brahms’s style and modes of expression without plagiarizing the actual notes. In this late cello sonata, (he died at 57) Herzogenberg is clearly trying to throw off the Brahms mantle, and in so doing sounds a bit like a wobbly bicycle with the training wheels taken off for the first time. When he stops imitating, you realize there’s not much to the man behind the façade. The piece is a concoction of statements and gestures that seem to have no logical continuation or particular point to make. All of it, however, is beautifully played by Moser and Rivinius, who have the field almost exclusively to themselves. The only other recording I’m aware of, but haven’t heard, is a cpo CD with Claudius Hermann and Saiko Sasaki.
I’m not quite as thrilled by Volume 2 in this series as I was by Volume 1. Still, it’s a well-played recital that offers at least two not-often-heard works in the cello repertoire. Recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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