Beethoven: Works for cello & piano (complete)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Works for cello & piano (complete)
PERFORMER: Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 475 379-2
In terms of sound quality these two sets couldn’t be much more different. The Philips recordings are intimate but somewhat airless (not much space round the performers), while the ECM is very spacious – not quite swimming-bath, but a long way from the kind of cosy salon environment historically associated with this kind of music. As to the playing, András Schiff is, as ever, an immaculate pianist. Immaculate can also mean impersonal, and in one or two of Schiff’s recent recordings that has been the lasting effect. But not here. It’s partly the partnership with Miklós Perényi that gives the music-making such sparkle and vitality, though those qualities are also very much apparent in the first two sonatas where the cello often takes a subordinate role. But there’s also a gripping sense of purpose, symphonic in essence, but never forgetting that this is chamber music: intimate and subtle in scale and detail. I particularly like the way Schiff and Perényi handle transitions: always key moments in Beethoven’s musical arguments. The fugal finale theme of Op. 102 No. 2 almost floats free of the ending of the slow movement – the effect compensating for a slightly lightweight quality in the Adagio’s closing pages – while the emergence of the finale theme in Op. 102 No. 1 is a moment of exquisite wit. There is some finely articulate, sensitive playing from the Brendels, too, and yes, they do work together like a ‘family’ team, at times clearly enjoying responding to each other’s phrasing and accentuation – especially, it seemed to me, in the relatively lightweight sets of Variations, Op. 66 and WoO 45. But overall there’s a slightly low-key feeling after Schiff and Perényi. The hushed dialogues at the start of Op. 102 No. 1 are lovely, but when it comes to the allegros I miss the Schiff-Perényi energy, bright clarity and superb shaping of long phrases. Apart from the quirkily brilliant Hidemi Suzuki and Yoshiko Kojima on period instruments (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), no modern version has as much to offer musically as the ECM set. So a qualified recommendation for Schiff and Perényi: I’d sample the recorded sound before buying, just to be on the safe side. Stephen Johnson