Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonata in g. Introduction and Polonaise brilliante. Variations brilliante in B? for Piano. Grand Duo Concertant on themes of
Robert le Diable
. Polonaise in c?,
Sergei Istomin (vc); Viviana Sofronitsky (pn) (period instruments)
PASSACAILLE 968 (64:56)
There’s something just a little bogus about this CD, titled
Chopin Complete Works for Cello and
. Or, let’s just call it stretching the truth a wee bit. It’s not the “complete works” part that raises an eyebrow. Chopin wrote only two-and-a-half works for cello and piano, and they’re all here; but obviously if that’s all that was here, we’d have a disc of fairly short playing time, so it has been filled out to a more generous 65 minutes with a couple of the composer’s popular works for solo piano. The part that amuses me is the blurb in small print on the back of the album jacket that reads, “Performed on his two favorite pianos.” Period-instrument performances using actual period instruments are not rare, but these are definitely not Chopin’s actual favorite pianos because they’re copies, one of a c.1819 Congrad Graf, op. 318, built in 2007; the other a copy of an 1830 Pleyel, op. 1555, built in 2009. Both instruments are the work of Paul McNulty, and I can guarantee you that Chopin never played on either one of them.
I’m also a bit suspicious of Sergei Istomin’s cello, an instrument from the shop of the 18th-century Austrian luthier Leopold Widhalm. It’s an original, not a copy, but what I question is its setup, which sounds to me like it has been refitted to modern standards. Also, the booklet misstates his dates as 1722 to 1766, but at least two Internet sources give his death year as 1776, and another source says 1786. In any case, it’s said that his instruments followed the Stainer model.
Now then, to the music: Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brilliante was not originally a wedded couple. The polonaise half was tossed off by the then 19-year-old composer during a visit to the estate of Prince Radziwill, who had two attractive young daughters. One of them, Wanda, was a fairly accomplished pianist, and her father, the Prince, was a pretty decent cellist. At the time, Chopin didn’t consider his trifle more than a salon piece, which is how he described it in a letter to a friend. In its still unwed form, Chopin dedicated the piece to celebrated cellist Joseph Merk, with whom the composer played it on an 1830 concert tour. It wasn’t until sometime later that Chopin prepended the introduction to the polonaise and sought the help of his cellist friend, August Joseph Franchomme, in preparing the work for its 1833 publication.
Chopin may have called it a salon piece, but I’d add an extra “o” and call it a “saloon” piece, for that’s what it reminds me of in this performance. The Conrad Graf copy suffers from the same infirmities and limitations of other instruments of its type I’ve heard. In the upper reaches of its keyboard, the tone starts to break up with that buzzing effect you get when humming through a wax-paper-covered comb, and anything above a
threatens to bring the thing down in a heap like a lean-to in a magnitude-7 quake.
A reluctant Chopin was persuaded by Franchomme to write the Grand Duo based on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera
Robert le Diable
. Chopin saw the opera and liked it well enough, but he was not keen on composing a piece using another composer’s music. He finally relented, but committed only to writing the piano part. The finished product was a truly collaborative effort, for it was Franchomme who wrote most, if not all, of the cello part. The Pleyel copy Sofronitsky plays in the Duo is a huge improvement over the Graf. It’s capable of a much wider dynamic range, does not suffer from the buzzing break-up effect in its upper range, and comes reasonably close to approximating the sound of a modern piano. I only wish it could be said that the Duo comes reasonably close to approximating good music. It’s obviously a virtuoso vehicle for the cello and equally obvious that Chopin’s heart and soul are not in it. The piece is utterly lacking in continuity; jumping awkwardly from one tune to the next, it’s more of a pastiche than it is an organized paraphrase or set of variations. Of Chopin’s works for cello and piano, judging by the number of recordings, the Duo appears to be the least popular, little wonder once you hear it.
The Cello Sonata is another matter entirely. It’s a late work, written in 1846, the last in fact of the composer’s works to be published in his lifetime. It too was composed for Franchomme, who performed it with Chopin at the piano in his last public concert in February 1848. The sonata marks what would have been an important turning point in Chopin’s compositional style and technique had he lived longer, for everything about the piece suggests that he had begun to see himself first and foremost as a composer and only secondarily as a pianist who happened to compose. He worked longer and harder on the sonata than just about anything else he’d written, and it posed a challenge he’d not previously faced, which was how to suppress the pianist in him and write a work that integrated the cello in a true partnership in which the material was distributed equally and in which Germanic principles of motivic development and formal procedures held sway.
The great irony of it is that in the Cello Sonata Chopin produced perhaps his greatest masterpiece and at the same time the most un-Chopinesque music he’d ever composed. In a way, that makes his death at 39 even more tragic than Mozart’s at 35, Schubert’s at 31, or Mendelssohn’s at 38, for in 1846, when Chopin completed his Cello Sonata, it’s clear that he had crossed the threshold to something new.
Wisely, Sofronitsky chose the Pleyel replica over the mock Graf for the sonata because this is powerful music that needs a powerful instrument. Istomin’s cello still sounds to me like an instrument fitted with modern bridge, fingerboard, and strings, and tuned to modern pitch. Nor does his playing eschew vibrato or a modern manner of execution. This is an excellent performance, technically flawless, beautifully balanced, and quite emotionally moving. In fact, I find Istomin and Sofronitsky more convincing that I did Raphael Wallfisch and John York on a Nimbus CD reviewed in
34:3. Still, Alban Gerhardt with Stephen Osborne on Hyperion and Truls Mørk with Kathryn Stott on Virgin Classics are not to be dismissed.
Sofronitsky gives us two of Chopin’s pieces for solo piano to fill out the disc. The Variations brilliante, which draws its material from Hérold’s
, is more successful as an opera-based piece than the cello-and-piano Intro and Polonaise, and the Graf reproduction she plays it on doesn’t sound quite so close to being on its final leg as it did in the earlier piece. Sensibly, she chooses the Pleyel once again for the beefier C?-Minor Polonaise.
This is a very satisfying release, one I can heartily recommend despite my reservations about the imitation Graf, which, in any case, is heard in only two of the less consequential pieces on the program. The main business, the sonata, is performed and recorded brilliantly.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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