Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonata. Introduction and Polonaise brilliante.
Cello Sonata No. 2
Jamie Walton (vc); Daniel Grimwood (pn)
SIGNUM 252 (71:48)
This appears to be a follow-up to Jamie Walton’s all Saint-Saëns CD reviewed in
29:6. I say “appears to be” because that album was an orchestral/chamber music mix that included Saint-Saëns’s two cello concertos plus the
first of his two cello sonatas, and it was on a different label, Quartz. The present album on Signum, for which Walton has recorded more extensively, gives us the second of Saint-Saëns’s two cello sonatas, along with two of Chopin’s cello-piano works, the early Introduction and Polonaise brilliante, and the late G-Minor Sonata.
In 34:6, I reviewed a pseudo-period instrument recording of these same two Chopin pieces performed by cellist Sergei Istomin and pianist Viviana Sofronitsky, but I’m not sure it would be fair to compare that release to this new one, for Istomin and Sofronitsky attempt a quasi-period-instrument realization with modern replicas of Chopin-era pianos and an authentic period cello, but one that sounds as if it has been fitted to modern practice standards. On the present recording, Walton and Grimwood, as expected, turn in committed, passionate performances in the best customs of modern-day practices.
With a number of recent, highly impressive CDs, Jamie Walton has rapidly become one of my favorite cellists. His musical instincts always seem perfectly attuned to the composer’s style and intentions, and his consummate technical skill, refulgent tone, and refined taste insure a fully satisfying performance, no matter what the score in front of him. Also, I especially like the partnership between Walton and Grimwood, a seemingly ideal collaboration I’ve commented on before.
Chopin was only 19 when he composed his Polonaise brilliante for the cello-playing Prince Radziwill and his attractive piano-playing daughter Wanda. At that point, the piece had no introduction, and Chopin considered his effort little more than a trifle. It wasn’t until considerably later that the composer added the introduction and sought the assistance of famed cellist August Joseph Franchomme in preparing the work for its 1833 publication.
The G-Minor Sonata is a whole different matter. Completed in 1846, it’s not the very last thing Chopin would write, but it’s close to it. It also represents a major effort on the part of the composer in terms of the time and labor he put into it. He struggled not only with achieving a proper balance between the cello and piano parts, but with aspects of development and form. Had he lived longer, the Cello Sonata might well have been just the first in a line of works that would have left us with a rather different Chopin from the composer we know today.
What was difficult for Chopin came easily for Saint-Saëns, at least most of the time. But the French composer’s second attempt at a cello sonata in 1905, the No. 2 in F Major, coming 33 years after his first essay in the medium, was apparently no breeze for him. “There, it is finally finished, the accursed sonata!” he is quoted to have said. Nor, apparently, did he think much of his handiwork, remarking disparagingly of the sonata’s finale that “it should awaken all those who were put to sleep by the other movements,” and of the
Scherzo con variazioni
, “I have not followed the trend in which the variations have about as much in common with the theme as the moon does with a pickled herring, but nonetheless they are dissimilar.” All of which leads one to wonder what prompted him to write it in the first place.
If the dedicatee of the piece, cellist Jules Griset, is the one who commissioned it, he wasn’t the first to perform it. That assignment went to Joseph Hollman, who played the sonata with Saint-Saëns at the piano at a private recital on November 7, 1905. Listening to the seeming effortlessness with which the music trips off the page and with the goldspun threads of Saint-Saëns’s ever-fertile lyricism, it’s hard to imagine that the score caused him any vexation in writing it or what it was that caused him to disparage it.
Among many versions of Chopin’s Cello Sonata to choose from, one that I found to have special merit is by Raphael Wallfisch and John York in 34:3. In addition to a superb performance of the Chopin, that Nimbus CD offers a real rarity in the form of a cello sonata by 20th-century Jewish Polish composer Simon (Szymon) Laks. Choices in recordings of Saint-Saëns’s F-Major Sonata are much more limited, but there is a fine one on Chandos with Christian Poltera and Kathryn Stott. No recording I have heard, however, of either the Chopin or the Saint-Saëns sonatas matches this one by Walton and Grimwood for sheer perfection of execution, beauty of tone, and radiance of recorded sound.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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