Brahms: Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38; Cello Sonata in F, Op. 99

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Channel Classics
WORKS: Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38; Cello Sonata in F, Op. 99
PERFORMER: Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Paul Komen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CCS 5493 DDD
Brahms completed his E minor Sonata, Op. 38, in 1865, following the death of his mother, and during the gestation of what was to become his German Requiem. A common key and predominantly sombre mood reveal sympathies with his Fourth Symphony, especially as both the Sonata’s fugal finale, and the closing Passacaglia of the Symphony have shared ancestry in Bach’s Art of Fugue. Peter Wispelwey’s performance is transparently cohesive, and has surprising architectural strength given that this is unusually lightweight Brahms playing. This lean-toned, athletic, yet uncompromisingly literal account is a far cry from the typically stoical, over-earnest Brahms playing which has done little to advance the cause of this music hitherto.

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But severity and objectivity have their own concomitant drawbacks of course. One obvious result is that much of the surging passion which should be immediately enthralling, as the F major Sonata reaches heavenward at the outset, is missing here. But this is intellectually demanding music, with an alarming plethora of balance problems to overcome in performance. Pianist Paul Komen impresses with constant textual fidelity, and seemingly effortless mastery of the titanic piano part, performing on an instrument by Josef Riedel of Vienna, c. 1865.

Wispelwey, too, has rich insight into this elusive and often thankless work which fails all too often in the recording studio. These artists offer stimulating, though never flamboyant readings of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, in superbly detailed and ideally balanced sound.

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Insert presentation and artwork are most attractive, but some notes on the music itself might have been more helpful than an essay on musical aesthetics and piano technology, however fascinating these issues may be. Michael Jameson