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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38 (1862-65)
Cello Sonata No.2 in F major, Op.99 (1886)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Emanuel Ax (piano) Recorded c. 1985 (no other details) DDD
RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82 876 59415 2 [56’52]

This is the first of Ma and Ax’s two recordings of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, not to be confused with their Sony version of 1992. I have not sampled the later one, but I suppose one reason they may well have felt the need for a re-think so soon after this RCA disc may be to do with tempos. All movements are pretty slow, but the E minor in particular suffers a rather ponderous, plodding approach that alters the character of the music.

Tempi per se are not a problem to me, but it does need artists of exceptional calibre to bring readings like this off. Luckily, we have two musicians who fit the bill of ‘outsize personality’ perfectly, and while I would not necessarily agree with the booklet writer that this disc is an ‘instant classic’, it has many considerable virtues to balance the frustrations.

The E minor Sonata, as mentioned, is possibly the more controversial performance of the two. Ma and Ax set a slow basic pulse for the first movement that is definitely observes the non troppo rather than allegro marking, bringing out a sense of gravity and unease rather than impassioned romanticism. The second subject could have had a touch more fiery contrast (track 1, 2’11), but with exposition repeat observed, the overall impression here is of weighty, brooding intensity. Nothing wrong with that, but the second movement’s quasi Menuetto marking seems also to be largely ignored, so that a dance-like feeling is replaced with a droll charm. I like the atmosphere of the Trio section, where Ax tries to literally follow Brahms’s col ped marking throughout, creating a nice sense of lonely, otherworldliness. Luckily for the shape of the whole work, the fugal finale is invested with plenty of imperious grandeur. The two players, especially Ma, are not afraid to play around with phrasing and rubato, but the slow-ish basic pulse allows plenty of subtle detail to emerge, as well as allowing for a proper presto coda that is not too breathless.

The much later F major Sonata gets a strong, boldly characterised reading. The opening may not sweep you off your feet, mainly due to Ax’s pedalling (or lack of it) but his observance of the p marking in his part correctly allows the cello to dominate. Ma’s rich, upholstered tone is a great joy, and the typically Brahmsian ‘purple passage’ at 5’07 (track 4) is wonderfully shaded by the cellist. The closing passage (try around 8’42) is whisper-quiet in its delicacy, and all the more moving for it. The slow movement is almost wholly successful with pacing, phrasing and intonation spot on, especially the difficult cello pizzicatos. The amiable, good-natured finale is again unhurried (properly so), with these two great players in perfect accord, Ax in particular supporting his partner with playing of translucent beauty.

The recorded sound is excellent, slightly favouring the piano but not to any problematic degree. There is no filler, but given that most of the competition (including these two) favour unnecessary transcriptions of the violin sonatas, this is not a particular problem. It is always worth having more than one version of staple classics like these, so you could consider this budget disc alongside other, more fleet-of-foot readings, such as Maria Kliegel (Naxos) or Steven Isserlis (Hyperion), for there’s no doubting the star quality on offer here.

Tony Haywood

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