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Jonathan Woolf
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-65) [26:03]
Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 (1886) [25:37]
André Navarra (cello)
Alfred Holeček (piano)
rec. Prague, 1961

I suspect that when ‘Brahms’ is in conjunction with ‘Navarra’ the constellation must be Suk-Ančerl, and the work the Double Concerto. Those with a more exhaustive mind might also consider the Campoli-Navarra-Barbirolli axis. That Navarra was considered for both these significant recording projects attests to the respect in which he was held in this repertoire; it wasn’t all Rostropovich, Fournier and Tortelier.

But in 1961 Supraphon recorded Navarra with local pianist Alfred Holeček in the two sonatas, and these performances saw renewed life on the Eterna label. They are now excellently restored by Forgotten Records. They could hardly have picked a more experienced string-sonata collaborator. Holeček had accompanied the leading Czech fiddler of his generation, Váša Příhoda, in numerous recitals but even before that, in the early to mid-1930s he had been the travelling accompanist of Jan Kubelík, the previous reigning Czech violinist. In fact they made a series of then-unpublished recordings in London around 1934, some of which have subsequently seen the light of day. So Holeček was a perfect artist to partner Navarra. When Decca sought out Suk for the Brahms Trios they teamed him with Starker and Katchen.

Back in Prague in 1961 the duo play with great control of dynamics and build phrases with resolution. They sculpt momentum splendidly in the E minor, ratcheting tension incrementally but never too soon, sweeping onwards through arcs - though they never fail to elide the more insistent aspects of the opening movement. The Allegretto is well characterised, not least the pianist’s assured playing in the trio, and the finale has requisite momentum, animated by fine rhythmic control and good ensemble.

The companion F major sonata is, if anything, even more vividly delineated, its architecture judged splendidly. The pizzicato episode in the slow movement and the associated stalking piano figures are well realised and altogether Navarra’s control of vibrato speed and depth ensures that the music is richly eloquent. This the duo ensures without undue tempo adjustments or gestures that feel in any way false. Natural phrasing is paramount, and elegance of phrasing, too, in the finale.

The balance rather favours the cello at the expense of the piano but the ear adjusts, though never quite manages to accommodate this slight miscalculation. It’s not something Forgotten Records could rectify in their excellent transfer. For a label that primarily restores LPs it’s remarkable, given they have not had access to master tapes here, how little LP detritus one hears.

Jonathan Woolf

Prevous review: Stephen Greenbank