Brahms: Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2 and Four Serious Songs performed by Alexander Baillie

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WORKS: Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; Four Serious Songs (transcr. Shafran/Baillie)
PERFORMER: Alexander Baillie (cello), John Thwaites (piano)

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Brahms’s cello sonatas are sufficiently grand and capacious to accommodate a range of approaches. Here we have youth (Hecker/Helmchen) and age (Baillie/Thwaites in a 60th birthday ‘tribute’ recording), a straight-up modern instrument performance against one using period German pianos (though, oddly, a non-period steel-strung cello). The chosen 1860s Rönisch piano in Op. 38 has a bass bathed in Dresden fog and an astringent treble in this too-resonant acoustic. Moreover, Alexander Baillie’s cello playing is boomily vague, lacking in sinew and, sadly, too often under the note. Pianist John Thwaites adopts Brahms’s technique of ‘dislocated’ hands most effectively, particularly in the serene Allegro non troppo coda. Speeds are judicious, not rushed in the intermezzo, suitably propulsive in the Allegro – though Thwaites’s ‘corrective’ regarding the adoption of slow speeds is out of date, as the younger duo ably prove. Thwaites/Baillie absorb Fanny Davies’s wonderful image of Brahms lingering ‘not on a note, but on a whole idea, as if unable to tear himself away from its beauty’ in Op. 99’s deeply-felt Adagio affettuoso. Here the piano is a darkly billowing 1877 Ehrbar, which gives the Allegro vivace a thunderous, inky atmosphere against which the cello strains. Better balanced is the lighter-coloured Streicher piano in a moving reading of Four Serious Songs, Op. 121. 

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen bring to the sonatas a seamless ensemble, producing something truly greater than the sum of its parts. Aside from the seraphic refinement of both instrumentalists, their ability to control energies together creates the natural gusts of momentum and repose Brahms demands. Here we have supple power and excitement in fast movements and unselfconscious eloquence in the slow, without, perhaps, that spark of galvanising fantasy Isserlis and Hough bring (Hyperion).

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Helen Wallace