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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Works for Cello and Piano
Variations concertantes Op. 17, MWV Q 19 (1829) [8:37]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 45, MWV Q 27 (1838) [22:34]
Song without Words for Cello & Piano, Op. 109, MWV Q34 (1847) [3:56]
Assai tranquillo in B Minor, MWV Q 25 (1835) [1:57]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58, MWV Q 32 (1843) [23:15]
Christian Poltéra (cello)
Ronald Brautigam (piano)
rec. 2016, Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
Reviewed as a 16-Bit download
BIS BIS2187 SACD [60:18]

One of my Classics teachers at school used to punish us for lacklustre homework by getting us to translate many of his rather singular prejudices into Greek or Latin prose. Many of these reflected his artistic enthusiasms and one such punishment I remember receiving was the tricky sentence “Mendelssohn composed more masterpieces in his youth than Mozart”. I suspect this was his way of getting us to dig that little bit deeper into the world of music and I can trace my affection for the blessed Felix right back to that particular linguistic challenge. What a joy it is then to spend an hour or so in the company of that master’s cello works; it is an oeuvre that is guaranteed to kindle a warm glow inside and broadly covers the entirety of his tragically short-lived career. There are many fine accounts of these works; two I would certainly recommend are those by the Watkins brothers Paul and Huw (with conventional piano - CHAN 10701 reviewed here) and Stephen Isserlis and Melvyn Tan (with fortepiano – RCA Red Seal 09026 62553-2 nla)

I would argue that this sparkling account from Poltéra and Brautigam adopts a kind of middle ground – the cellist has furnished his 1711 Strad with gut strings, while Brautigam performs on a copy of an 1830 Pleyel instrument (on which he recently recorded the Songs Without Words for BIS). Both Sonatas and Variations are characterised by pretty swift tempi, not unlike the Isserlis/Tan recording. The sounds of the two instruments complement each other delightfully, and duly illuminate the originality of Mendelssohn’s inspiration.

All three extended works here were inspired by the composer’s younger brother Paul who was a gifted amateur cellist. The Variations Concertantes are another miraculous product of the composer’s late youth, a concise mini-masterpiece whose classical poise impetuously splinters into something quite different in its concluding variation. The account here is quite devoid of ego and suffused with the spirit of shared responsibility. Poltéra’s playing is lithe and agile and beautifully complemented by Brautigam’s flexibility. There is a striking similarity between Mendelssohn’s theme and that of the fourth movement (the Theme and Variations) of Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

At times in the B flat major Sonata, Poltéra’s playing is so tactful listeners could be forgiven for thinking that the recorded balance actually favours the pianist, but this is likely to be due to the cellist’s wonderful appreciation of dynamic contrast and the actual sound of Brautigam’s instrument. These features become clearer as the work proceeds, while the songful quality that pervades the sonata is omnipresent in this account. The delightful final Allegro Assai eventually unfolds into a sonata-rondo that recalls the first movement before it gently and hauntingly melts away. This is wonderfully managed by the performers here.

Most recordings of Mendelssohn’s cello music nowadays routinely include the two miniatures recorded here, needless to say there is nothing remotely routine about Poltéra and Brautigam’s deeply felt accounts of the late Song Without Words, Op 109 (the only one from the set that involves another instrument) and the brief, emotionally-ambiguous Assai tranquillo.
 
The four movement Sonata No 2 is a work of Mendelssohn’s maturity, which represents a considerable advance in confidence and technique compared to its sibling. Poltéra’s delivery of the heroic theme in the first movement is impassioned and assertive though utterly devoid of histrionics; he extracts some gorgeous, ripe colours from his instrument here while amply conveying the restless quality of Mendelssohn’s inspiration. Similarly, in sonic terms the pizzicatos of the second movement are wonderfully complemented by Brautigam’s copy Pleyel; the quiet playing in this movement is exceptional. The apparent novelty of the textures as captured here epitomises the adventurousness of Mendelssohn’s harmonic experiments. This sense of bold exploration continues into the final two movements; the piano arpeggios of the slow movement concealing a rather Bachian chorale and recitative-type design; the pithy notes suggest this panel functions as a prelude to the beautifully proportioned finale.

The engineering is exemplary as is usual from this source. The sound is as light as air yet splendidly detailed. Much as I have enjoyed Poltéra’s earlier recordings of Honegger, Schoeck and Frank Martin (among others) it has been an absolute delight to hear him in Mendelssohn. Brautigam is a deeply insightful musician whose contribution goes way beyond accompaniment. I anticipate spending many happy hours in the company of this lovely disc.

Richard Hanlon
 

 

 




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