This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.
Notes and Editorial Reviews
Comely music-making enhanced by a fine balance of head and heart.
Brahms’s cello sonatas make for an ideal coupling, and not merely because there are only two of them (unless you count the D major cello transcription of the G major Violin Sonata). The differences between them are significant, both in terms of tone and character – the First being fairly mellow and soft-spoken, the Second full of bold contrasts – and these new recordings tend to underline those dissimilarities.
First of all, there is the question of sound quality. Harrell and Kovacevich were recorded in the aptly named Air Studios, London, with plenty of ambience around both instruments and a lean, even rather metallic piano tone.
Furthermore, Harrell’s lusty attack occasionally prompts a small roster of aural side effects, such as what sounds like an accidental harmonic 2'19'' into the E minor Sonata’s first movement. Harrell pushes so hard in the Second Sonata’s Allegro passionato that it is sometimes difficult to tell what notes are being played (a quick comparison with Schiff soon clarifies matters). Schiff, on the other hand, offers rather more in the way of executive refinement.
Both pianists are already well known for some excellent Brahms recordings, Oppitz primarily for the solo works, Kovacevich for the concertos, and their different qualities – Oppitz’s subtlety, Kovacevich’s energy – follow through in these recordings. Schiff and Oppitz enjoy a warmer, more intimate acoustic (at Reinstadl, Neumarkt in Germany) that suits the fastidiously articulated profile of their performances. True, they are rather less passionate in the Second Sonata’s Allegro vivace first movement than Harrell and Kovacevich, but I prefer their handling of the eerie F sharp minor development and I am convinced that Schiff’s vibrant pizzicatos near the start of the Adagio affettuoso create precisely the sort of sound world that Brahms envisaged. I also enjoyed Schiff and Oppitz in the First Sonata’s elegant Allegretto quasi Menuetto (Harrell and Kovacevich make it sound more like a waltz), and the way they slowly edge into the third movement of the Second Sonata.
Swings and roundabouts find the EMI team passionate and driven, with Kovacevich offering more in the way of pedal colouring; while the Philips partnership is more delicate, more sensitive to nuance and more attentive to phrasal minutiae. Of the two cellists, Schiff gets my personal vote, mainly because the aspects of the music that he most readily connects with – its song-like, musing qualities – mean more to me personally. As to which is the better buy, EMI have a trump card up their sleeve in Kovacevich’s spontaneous, keenly accented account of the Handel Variations, an excellent performance that sounds as if it was recorded in a single take.
Viable rivals include three featuring Janos Starker, the Mercury recording being a special favourite, but for me the pick of recent recordings is the new Schiff-Oppitz coupling, comely music-making much enhanced by a fine balance of head and heart.
-- Gramophone [3/1998]
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