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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for cello and piano No.1 in E minor, op.38 (1862-65) [26:09]
Sonata for cello and piano No.2 in F major, op.99 (1886) [28:01]
Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat major, op.120, no.2 - arranged Carl-Oscar ØSTERLIND (b.1984) (1894) [20:29]
Carl-Oscar Østerlind (cello)
Emil Gryesten (piano)
rec. 2018/19, John’s Hall, Kirsten Kjaers Museum, Frøstrup, Denmark

First things first: the advertising ‘blurb’ for this disc is sub-headed ‘International young (my italics) Danish cellist with Brahms’s Sonatas.’ Now compared to me, Carl-Oscar Østerlind is indeed a youngster; on the other hand, he was born in 1984, which makes him 36 years old: slowly drifting towards middle age - but then, you are only as young as you feel!  Østerlind certainly has the gift of experience: he has won several awards and competitions including the Danish Arts Council’s ‘career grant’ and the Danish String Competition and the Swedish Ljunggrenska Competition in 2010. His career as a soloist has taken him to Sweden, Denmark, the United States and Mexico.

Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, op.38 is the earliest of his instrumental sonatas. The work was begun in 1862 and dedicated to the composer’s friend Josef Gansbacher. There were later changes to this work, with the second movement ‘adagio’ being removed and the new ‘finale’ added in 1865.  In this Sonata the composer looks ‘Back to Bach’ with a quotation from the Art of the Fugue (Contrapunctus 13) in the final movement.  This is developed here as sonata form and fugue.  Some have also seen this as being the basis of the first subject of the opening movement. Critics have noted that the main theme of the ‘menuetto’ (middle movement) seems to nod towards the ‘Scherzo’ of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A major, op.69. There is an elegance about much of this music that derives from Brahms’s backward glances to the great composers of the past. The trick in playing this piece is to absorb these undoubted influences without overplaying them.

Brahms composed his Cello Sonata No.2, op.99 during the summer of 1886 at Hofstetten on Lake Thun in Switzerland. His ‘workshop’ was full of orders during this vacation. He laboured on the Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, op.100, the Piano Trio in C minor, op.101, and the present Cello Sonata.  This Sonata is written in four movements. The opening ‘allegro vivace’ presents a wide ‘symphonic sweep’ that is sometimes turbulent and often confident in its exposition. The slow movement is a perfectly balanced equilibrium of suppressed anguish and some telling introspection. It is surely one of Brahms most perfect utterances. This is followed by a fiery and restless ‘Scherzo’ which shows a disparity between ‘hard driven’ and ‘delicately danced’ music. All ends up happy-ever-after with a well-wrought, lively, and easy-going ‘Rondo’ (allegro molto). The entire sonata bears witness to the composer’s maturity.

I am not the greatest fan of rearrangements of established masterpieces for other resources. For example, Classic FM’s regular programming or Canteloube’s ‘Baïlèro’ rewritten for cello and orchestra and Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 played on the harp rather than the piano tend to annoy me (probably unreasonably). Is there not enough music specifically composed for cello and for harp that remains undiscovered? The present reworking of the Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat major, op.120, no.2 by Carl-Oscar Østerlind has some precedence for the swapping of the clarinet for the cello: Brahms himself produced a version for viola and piano in 1895. But the fact remains that along with the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet and the Two Sonatas, Brahms was inspired by the lyrical playing of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld: they were specially written to reflect his expertise. At least the liner notes are honest when they suggest that ‘the cello adds something to the music which maybe Brahms didn’t intend…’ I concede that it sounds impressive in this transcription, but it is one that I would not return to. Next time it will be the original creation for clarinet...

I found the playing in all three sonatas urbane, sophisticated and, especially in the final work, tinged with autumnal colouring. Both performers combine as partners, rather than as soloist and ‘mere’ accompanist. The booklet written by Andrew Mellor is excellent and gives all the information needed to enjoy and appreciate these three Sonatas. Biographies of the artists are included. The record cover, is, alas, boring and totally uninspiring.

I am not an aficionado of Brahms’s chamber music, and only very occasionally turn to something out of this section of his catalogue. There are many recordings of the ‘official’ Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (around 119 and 102 respectively). Only a devotee would know them all. What I can say is this the performances on this CD sound impressive and are well-structured. The entire package seems to me to be a worthy addition to the vast number of other options.

John France

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