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Shostakovich; Brahms: Cello Sonatas / Khoma, Oetiker

Shostakovich / Brahms / Khoma / Oetiker
Release Date: 05/24/2011 
Label:  Centaur Records   Catalog #: 3100  
Composer:  Dmitri ShostakovichJohannes Brahms
Performer:  Adrian OetikerNatalia Khoma
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Sonata. BRAHMS Cello Sonata in e Natalia Khoma (vc); Adrian Oetiker (pn) CENTAUR 3100 (54:39)

To say that these two popular cello sonatas are well represented on record would be an understatement. What may set this release apart from the crowd, however, is its unusual, perhaps even unique pairing of these two particular works on the same disc. Still, I should hasten to add that these recordings are far from new. The Read more Shostakovich was recorded in 1998; the Brahms, in 2000. Whether they’ve been available previously on another label I can’t say, but Centaur gives the copyright date as 2010.

Given her Russian background, it’s not surprising to find that Natalia Khoma seems to have an affinity for Shostakovich. The composer’s D-Minor Sonata is an early work dating from 1934, and while its second and fourth movements already exhibit Shostakovich’s unique voice—the rhythmic ostinatos, sharp dissonances, and caustic wit—the score’s first movement, in particular, is of a softer, lyrical character one wouldn’t necessarily associate with the composer if one weren’t familiar with the work.

In the somber Largo, Khoma communicates in a sotto voce , tremulous tone a real sense of personal grief, while in the first of the two Allegros, she and partner Adrian Oetiker dive undaunted into Shostakovich’s spinning vortex. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a cellist and pianist so perfectly in sync with each other in this movement, the cello’s arpeggios picked up and precisely echoed in the piano’s roulades several measures later. And Khoma’s glissandos up to those glassy harmonics rate high on the “slither” scale. Only one very minor flaw mars an otherwise perfect performance in this movement, and that’s Khoma’s descending octaves at the 1:00 mark, which go just slightly out of tune. I credit her, though, for not once in the entire work producing a single rough or abrasive sound with her bow, though she plays with a good deal of bite. It’s the kind of bite, however, that’s always clean and razor-sharp.

Recently, I reviewed another version of the Shostakovich on a BIS SACD with Alexander Chaushian and Yevgeny Sudbin. It too was excellent, but I think I’d give a slight edge to Khoma and Oetiker for their incredible clockwork-like teamwork. Nor does the brand-spanking new BIS SACD have anything over the outstanding, lifelike sound on this 1998 recording.

There are, of course, many versions of the sonata to choose from, including the historic EMI recording by Rostropovich and the composer at the piano, considered by some to be definitive. But two of my favorites among more recent accounts are those by Mischa Maisky with Martha Argerich on Deutsche Grammophon and Johannes Moser with Paul Rivinius on Hänssler. I’m still waiting, however, for two other leading cellists, Daniel-Müller-Schott and Jamie Walton, to give us their accounts.

There’s nothing I can point to objectively about Khoma’s performance of the Brahms sonata that causes me to be less responsive to it than I am to her Shostakovich; it’s entirely personal and subjective. She and Oetiker do everything according to the letter of the score, including observing the first-movement exposition repeat, but there’s something I find difficult to put my finger on which, for want of a better description, strikes me as a lack of expression. Tempos, dynamics, and phrasing are all meticulously observed and, again as in the Shostakovich, there’s exceptional rapport between the players, both of whom demonstrate real fire and technical prowess in the last movement.

It’s in the opening of the first movement, though, that Khoma fails to take my breath away when the low F? at the end of the sixth bar reaches all the way up to the G, a minor ninth above it at the beginning of bar 7. It’s one of those Brahmsian gestures that other cellists milk for all it’s worth, inserting the slightest luftpause just before the G and then leaning into it. Khoma makes nothing special of the moment; while it’s a small thing that hardly ruins the performance, it’s symptomatic of what seems to me to be a reading that doesn’t penetrate and probe the emotional depths of the score to the same degree I hear in her and Oetiker’s mining of the Shostakovich for expressive opportunities.

These are, nonetheless, fine performances and recordings of two of the cello repertoire’s major works and, pairing them may be a first. Certainly fans of Natalia Khoma need not hesitate, nor should the general cello enthusiast have any reservations.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Performer:  Adrian Oetiker (Piano), Natalia Khoma (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; USSR 
Sonata for Cello and Piano no 1 in E minor, Op. 38 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Natalia Khoma (Cello), Adrian Oetiker (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1865; Austria 

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