Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonatas: Nos. 1, 2. Violin Sonata,
op. 78 (arr: Klengel)
Antony Cooke (vc); Armin Watkins (pn)
CENTAUR 3140/41 (2 CDs: 90:12)
As with his set of Beethoven sonatas, Antony Cooke is again competing with some heavy names, among them Fournier, Bailey, Du Pré, Harrell, Isserlis, Rose, and Ma, but once again Cooke can hold his head high. In this case, he has thrown in the Paul Klengel transcription of the op. 78 Violin Sonata, here transposed from G to D, which
was done with Brahms’s knowledge and blessing. Again, he has good company, as Ma (Sony 63229), Starker (RCA 60598), and Maisky (DGG 453424) are only three of the cellists who have recorded it. Yet, by just performing the three sonatas and none of Brahms’s other music for cello and piano—much of which Zuill Bailey used to fill out his single disc of the two bona-fide sonatas on Telarc—this ends up being a fairly short two-CD set at only 90 minutes.
Despite this, I would say it’s worth every cent, not only because of the high quality of the performances but also because the sonics have finally reached the highest 21st-century standard. Recorded in the recital auditorium of a Steinway dealership in San Diego, rather than the clean but somewhat unresonant acoustic of the Local 47 rehearsal hall in Hollywood as his other two CD sets were (Beethoven and Chopin), there is plenty of space around both cello and piano that gives an almost surround-sound quality to the recordings and performances. Now, for instance, Cooke’s low tones display their full rumble and resonance rather than just the plush velvety smoothness one hears on his other Centaur albums (in fact, it sounds remarkably close to what I remember of hearing Colin Carr in person). Mind you, this is not to denigrate the performances on those other sets, which are of a very high order, merely that the improved sonics raise the Brahms set to the very highest pinnacle one can achieve, a perfect synthesis of sonics and interpretation.
Once again, the Cooke-Watkins duo is emotionally committed and rhythmically alert to the ever-changing demands of the music. Even the very first movement of the First Sonata takes one down many avenues of feeling and mood, so many, in fact, that one feels positively drained by the time one gets to the second movement. Happily, the Allegretto, despite its galumphing and sometimes hesitating rhythm, brings out a playfully subtle side of Cooke, and through him, of the music. Similarly, the equally quirky Allegro finale is magically performed, with both Cooke and Watkins finding exactly the right interstices to piece together the peculiar yet insistent rhythms of the piece. I might add that Coke and Watkins have been performing as a duo since 1971. Those decades of synergy between them certainly pay dividends in the unified view of their performances in all three sets.
Whatever one’s opinion of the Klengel transcription of op. 78 (I still think it “sounds” better as a violin sonata), one cannot fault Cooke’s performance. Despite eschewing the old-fashioned portamento that was part and parcel of performances during Brahms’s lifetime, the depth of feeling he achieves here is similar to Huberman’s off-the-air transcription performance on Arbiter. Again, the almost 3-D sound brings Cooke’s cello right into your living room, giving your ears an absolute treat when basking in the warmth and glow of his tone. The charming, less emotionally challenging first movement of this sonata brings out the more seductive qualities of Cooke’s style, yet it is no less emotionally committed when the music turns more serious, as in the Adagio.
The later Sonata, op. 99, is first-class Brahms in every respect, more compact in thematic statement and development as well as direct emotional expression, and the Cooke-Watkins duo is not found wanting. Every turn of phrase, change of mood, or touch of pathos without bathos is effectively presented and controlled. Indeed, without doing A-B comparisons with any of the cellists mentioned in the first paragraph, it’s difficult to think of anyone doing a better job on this sonata. The performance is just that good. Emotionally, he comes across better than Harrell or Ma, and seems to me the equal of Bailey, Du Pré, and Isserlis. In terms of timbre, of that deeply resonant sound quality, again only Carr comes to mind.
I recommend this set very highly to lovers of the Brahms cello works.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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