Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonatas: No. 1 in e; No. 2 in F
Laura Buruiana (vc); Matei Varga (pn)
COVIELLO 51204 (51:26)
Most recordings of Brahms’s two cello sonatas give top billing to the cellist and, in fact, our headnotes reflect that primacy by dint of designating the works “cello sonatas.” But the truth is that the first edition of the E-Minor Sonata put out by Simrock in 1866 featured a title page that read, “Sonate für Pianoforte und Violoncello.” Over 20 years later, when Simrock published Brahms’s Second
Cello Sonata, the title page still read, “Zweite Sonate (F dur) für Pianoforte und Violoncell.” It wasn’t until the 20th century that later editions began to reverse the naming order of the instruments. The 1922 Schott edition of the E-Minor Sonata, for example, gives the title page as “Brahms Sonate No. 1—e moll—mi mineur—op. 38—Violoncello und Klavier.” One can speculate as to why subsequent publishers decided to make the change, but with regard to the current recording, one could say either that Coviello got it right or that the company is guilty of perpetrating an anachronistic atavism.
My preference is to place the cello and the name of the cellist first, just as I would for violin sonatas, flute sonatas, clarinet sonatas, etc. The reason is straightforward and simple. Ninety-nine percent of duo sonatas from the late 18th century onward feature a piano as one of the two instruments. Yes, I know; Paganini wrote sonatas for violin and guitar, but these are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, it makes more sense to me to place first the name of the differentiating instrument, not the constant one. The piano is a constant in Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Brahms’s duo sonatas. But some of those sonatas feature a violin as the other instrument, while some feature a cello. Thus, what differentiates Brahms’s op. 38 from his op. 78 is not the piano but a cello as “other” in the former and a violin as “other” in the latter.
I’ve taken this detour from the main subject at hand because not only does Coviello label these two sonatas “for piano and cello,” it also places the pianist’s name, Matei Varga, ahead of the cellist’s, Laura Buruiana, and I’m sorry, but I think that’s just not right, and at some point in the early 20th century, most music publishers, concert promoters, and record producers seem to have come around to the same way of thinking.
None of the foregoing reflects even remotely on the current performances, which enter the ring against some very formidable competition. But I hope the marvelous young Romanian pianist Matei Varga will forgive me if I attend first to the equally wonderful cellist on this disc, Laura Buruiana.
Also Romanian by birth and a competition winner who took first prize at the Young Concert Artists Award in New York in 2003, Buruiana has already established herself in international circles as a cellist of the highest caliber. Her playing on this disc confirms and reinforces that judgment. What impresses the moment her bow sets strings to vibrating is her flowing line, filled with throbbing passion and intense pleading, yet so restrained within bounds of good musical breeding and taste that not a single portamento is to be heard, even where wide interval shifts provide an excuse for other players to rely on the device. Nor is there anywhere to be heard a bow change, so smooth and well regulated is Buruiana’s articulation.
First-movement exposition repeats in both sonatas are observed, and while tempos tend toward the moderate side, if Buruiana hasn’t already erased any doubts about her technical chops by the time she gets to the
in the finale of the E-Minor Sonata, she will make your hair stand up.
A cursory glance at these scores will tell you that the pianist’s role goes far beyond simply shoring up the cello. Brahms’s writing for the piano is highly concentrated and interacts with the cello in an often densely contrapuntal dialog. Not since my encounter with the recording of these sonatas by Bion Tsang and Anton Nel in
33:6 have I heard a pianist engage the cellist with such clarity of line and perfection of timing. As Alex Ross says in his recent book
Listen to This,
“Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm,” and when you hear these performances you’ll understand what Ross meant. If there’s an analogy here, it’s like watching the acrobatic precision of one trapeze artist catch the hands of another as she hurtles through the air. Except for Buruiana and Varga there’s no net to catch them, should one of them miscalculate even by a microsecond. This is more than a musical partnership; it’s two lives that depend on each other, and it’s an absolutely thrilling, breathtaking marvel to behold. Varga is so fantastic, and so is Buruiana, that they both deserve top billing.
Perhaps I should mention too that there’s a bit of cross-pollination going on here between composers, performers, and record labels. For Naxos, pianist Matei Varga recorded a disc of solo piano works by Enescu. Here, for Coviello, Varga joins cellist Laura Buruiana in the Brahms sonatas. On another Naxos CD, Buruiana turns her attention to Enescu’s cello sonatas, but with a different pianist, Martin Tchiba. And on a Zig-Zag Territoires CD, Buruiana, who is cellist in the Brancusi Trio, joins her ensemble partners in a recording of Enescu’s piano trios.
Buruiana and Varga’s Brahms cello sonatas, or Varga and Buruiana’s Brahms cello sonatas—whichever strikes your fancy—must now take pride of place over Tsang and Nel as my favorite recording of these works. That’s a must-buy recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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