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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata no.1 in G major, from Violin Sonata, op. 78 (1878-9) [23:07]
Sonata in F minor, from Clarinet Sonata, op. 120 no. 1 (1894) [28:21]
Sonata in E flat major, from Clarinet Sonata, op. 120 no. 2 (1894) [21:01]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
John York (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI5974 [72:34]

Raphael Wallfisch’s discography is extensive; perhaps exhaustive, in the sense that he has recorded practically every major work written for the cello and many a ‘minor’ one too. In this he has, over the years, worked with EMI, Chandos, Black Box, ASV, Naxos and Nimbus. His personal odyssey has seen him exploring both the mainstream concerto repertoire and less familiar works by Dohnányi, Respighi, Barber, Hindemith, Martinů, Kabalevsky and Khachaturian. To the honours he has added compositions by English composers from the early to the late years of the twentieth century: MacMillan, Finzi, Delius, Bax, Bliss, Britten, Moeran and Leighton.

I have ‘his’ Beethoven Cello Sonatas, recorded with John York in a large EMI Eminence box and they’ve since recorded them for Nimbus. I also had the pleasure of seeing him perform sonatas with pianist Ronan O’Hora at the Lake District Summer Music Festival in 1998.

This is Wallfisch’s third excursion into Brahms’ chamber works. He has already recorded the Trios and Double Concerto with Trio Shaham and Erez Wallfisch and Daniel Raiskin’s Koblenz-based orchestra. His Volume One comprised the authentic cello sonatas, again with John York; both discs for Nimbus. As yet neither have been reviewed by MusicWeb International.

The notes from John York state that “cellists are fortunate indeed to have their two Brahms sonatas; both masterpieces in the genre. So, one can, and certainly will, ask if they need or indeed dare to ‘borrow’ the G major violin sonata and the two clarinet sonatas and thereby make our two into five. Questions that arise: Are we just attempting to reproduce the original work with the necessary pitch and register changes? Can this be an opportunity to give another significance, even a second parallel existence, to a beloved work of art? The answer to the first question must be ‘no’, because such a treatment would simply be arrogant and pointless”. To the second, John York hopes that “listeners can agree that the two clarinet sonatas and the G major violin sonata lose nothing in these ‘translations’ and even gain a great deal of new and perhaps unexpected depth and character”. That is certainly questionable, changing from clarinet and particularly the violin to cello is a major shift and must be problematic. I had heard the distinguished pianist Imogen Cooper accompanying a cellist in an arrangement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G Major Op.78, in Oxford about ten years ago and it was, to my ears, very unsuccessful. I was apprehensive about the recording here, of which more later.

The first “Cello” Sonata is in E flat major, from Clarinet Sonata, op. 120 no. 2. It is one of two works Brahms wrote in 1894. They are dedicated to the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. He used the beauty of the sound and the tonal colour of the clarinet, most successfully in the sublime Clarinet Quintet, op. 115, perhaps one of the greatest chamber works, written earlier in 1891, and also for Mühlfeld. Where York may be courting controversy is when he states “that these clarinet works lose nothing in these ‘translations’ and even gain a great deal of new and perhaps unexpected depth and character”. Surely the first point cannot be true but I would definitely agree with the second. I liked the performance of this E flat major Sonata very much, although I don’t know it as well as some Brahms. It has his ‘autumnal’ hue which I find greatly endearing.

Wallfisch’s and York’s experience of playing together for so long certainly pays dividends. After the mellifluous and certainly amiable Allegro Amabile, the Allegro appassionato has a brimming and pent-up emotion that is so often present in Brahms. It’s a warm-hearted, affectionate and unhurried work, the epitome of an Indian summer which Brahms, like ‘Old Jolyon’ in the contemporary “Forsyte Saga” was enjoying; he greatly liked the Hamburg composer. This transcription clearly works.

In her review of a live recital, five years ago, Claire Seymour had questioned if Brahms composed two wonderful sonatas for the cello – the first in E Minor during the 1860s, and the second in F Major, twenty years later. She wondered why Wallfisch had chosen instead to perform Paul Klengel’s arrangement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G Major Op. 78. In the booklet, York suggests that Brahms, not Klengel had made the arrangement. It was a work he loved as did his dear friend and confidante Clara Schumann; Brahms played it at her funeral in 1896. The reason here is to create material for a second CD and seems to me justifiable when performed so effectively.  In the review, judgements may have been affected, very reasonably, by the fact that, as a violinist, she knew this sonata inside out. As a non-violinist I cannot have this insight. She found that the opening melody, which I adore, of the Vivace ma non troppo lacked the floating quality that the higher-lying violin version evokes. She concluded that the cello’s double-stopped chords, when the piano takes over the melody, had too much presence. One appreciates much beautifully expressive and suave phrasing, particularly in the quieter passages for the cello. The nuanced handling of tempo and sensitive rubato of the closing bars of the first movement were persuasive. Even so, I was apprehensive about hearing this in view of previous experience but in the event, I felt that, if it is to be done, it has been done very well. Having transcribed it down to D seems logical in view of the instrument. However if I didn’t know the work, I’m pretty sure that I would consider it a genuine cello piece. My go-to recording of the violin original is the Decca set with Josef Suk and Julius Katchen but I like to think those two musicians would enjoy this. The notes by John York go into some detail and they fully justify this transcription, giving it perhaps a more elegiac quality.

At the live concert, the Adagio had a darkness and tortured anguish, with the piano’s statement of the theme resonating with bell-like sonority. This is very apparent in the recording. The individual voices of the chordal progressions remained lucid and the cello extends the tragic air.  Again, Wallfisch’s double-stopped melodies are gloriously rich and sonorous. Whilst it is clearly different to a violin, his vibrato in the concluding phrases is even more telling. The instrument and transposition of key makes it an altogether darker work. The duo’s playing, especially here, is magnificent, moody and moving, which brought to mind Brahms’ mentor Robert Schumann, also a very successful composer for the cello, rather more than the violin. Perhaps it’s down to temperament. The Allegro molto moderato brings a tangible release of tension and one can appreciate the “raindrop” pattering. The timbres that Wallfisch produces from the cello really have to be heard and the ending, with the beginning returning briefly, is magical.

The disc concludes with the first Clarinet Sonata in F minor which, as York points out, is the more passionate of the two, especially in the surging first movement. The aptly named Allegro molto moderato first movement has some similarity to the musical argument of Brahms’ Second Symphony. Heartstrings are pulled effectively in the plaintive Andante un poco adagio and the two instruments are in perfect unison. There’s a charming melody and more spirit in the Allegretto grazioso before the work ends with a spirited and forceful Vivace which sounds perfectly natural. I’ll need to go back to the Gervase de Peyer and Daniel Barenboim (Classics for Pleasure) recording to compare the originals. Part of the fascination in reviewing is discovery and also revisiting old favourites.

This recital seems to be a very successful collection of transcriptions, due to the dedication and skilful prowess of Raphael Wallfisch and John York. The great thing about adaptation of music, unlike say, a building, is that the original is still present and can be enjoyed as a different experience. John York is, I am sure, right in saying that these works “gain perhaps unexpected depth and character”, as well as the inevitable losses.

I commend this recording to lovers of Brahms’ cello and of these two first-class musicians. I would love to hear Volume 1 and the set of Trios and Double Concerto; all wonderful works by a master composer.
David R Dunsmore

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