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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms/Schumann/Mendelssohn
LABELS: John Marks Records
WORKS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38; Cello Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 99; Phantasiestücke, Op. 73; Lied ohne Worte, Op. 109
PERFORMER: Nathaniel Rosen (cello), Doris Stevenson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: JMR 5 DDD (distr. May Audio)
Brahms’s two cello sonatas provide the instrument with some of its most serious chamber music and thus a window on an artist’s maturity. It is perhaps unfair to compare the two artists on these discs. Starker, though 68 at the time of his recording, is still articulate as only those with an exceptional technique can be and, if anything, the sheer beauty of his sound and the dignified naturalness of his phrasing are now even more refined. Unfortunately, his luminously straight readings throw into sharp relief the drawbacks of Rosen’s performance.


Here comes Brahms burdened with an ‘interpretation’. Rosen leans into the beginnings of bars, dragging and unbalancing the flow, fussing over detail, while Starker chooses tempi that move and builds up momentum in long lines of absolute rhythmic steadiness. Rosen’s reading, while sincere, exudes a sense of struggle: phrases are prefaced with audible breaths and lead to ugly, crashing accents. The contrast is most striking in the complex, ungratifying finale to the F major sonata. Rosen takes the first opportunity to become introspective and delicate; Starker may not find such a subtle variety of mood, but he gives the movement coherence.

Rosen is not helped by inferior recording quality, which particularly muddies the piano, and an instrument with nasal top strings and an opaque lower register. Starker certainly has the tools: a Goffriller cello, excellent recording quality and a magnificent pianist in Rudolf Buchbinder.


However, their Schumann recordings make an interesting coda: Rosen is touching in the trembling poetry of Schumann’s Phantasiestücke while the Adagio and Allegro in Starker’s hands has never seen so jubilant a storm – Eusebius and Florestan enacted. Helen Wallace