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French Cello Sonatas
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65 [31:19]
Louise FARRENC (1804-1875)
Cello Sonata in B flat, Op.46 [23:02]
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op.32 [20:10]
The Swan [2:43]
David Berlin (cello)
Benjamin Martin (piano)
rec. 4-13 December 2019, Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank Centre, Melbourne, Australia.
ABC CLASSICS 485 5165 [77:26]

Passion and conviction are the two key words to describe this compelling performance of the Chopin Cello Sonata. One of the very rare works where Chopin brought in something else to go with the piano which figures in every single one of his published works, the Cello Sonata is unusual in that the cello at least has more than a mere accompanying role, and does contribute to an extent to the headline material. True, the piano writing is extravagant and extensive – and is played with great virtuoso zeal by Benjamin Martin – but David Berlin is not going to let his instrument be side-lined, and he throws himself into the performance with relish, delivering playing of great self-assurance and a level of virtuosity every bit the equal of his pianist associate. Martin has written the booklet notes and points out that Chopin “felt a particularly strong kinship with the cello”. Certainly that is brought out strongly in the third movement “Largo” where a period of introspection and tenderness finds Berlin’s eloquent and beautifully poised cello line delicately enhanced by Martin’s impeccably sensitive pianism. Otherwise the work is generally quite stormy, and there is a sense of edge-of-the-seat impetuosity, especially in the “Scherzo”, which makes for truly exciting listening. The ending of the finale is a gloriously dramatic gesture, and it is difficult not to burst into spontaneous applause given the wonderful elan these two Australian players bring to it. A word here about the recording, which has sumptuous depth and presence.

While Chopin is a household name – even if the Cello Sonatas is not among the most recorded of his works – the name of Louise Farrenc is only now gaining some recognition, and her Cello Sonata is currently available only in two other recordings (from Rebecca Knight and Diana Ambache on Ambache Recordings and Kirsten Whitson and Mary Ellen Haupert on Centaur). Farrenc, like Chopin, was best known in the Paris of her day as a pianist, but her composing portfolio, which is only now gradually emerging on CD, shows her to be a composer of far greater scope if not quite equivalent originality. The Cello Sonata, composed in 1857, a decade after the Chopin, seems almost to step back in time, its graceful opening theme and its generous ornamentation harking back to the Vienna of the late 18th century. The piano writing is neat and unobtrusive, although there are outbursts of athleticism in the first movement which Martin brushes aside with consummate ease. The cello does far more than just sing lovely melodies (of which there are plenty) and this is in every respect a true chamber work, at times hinting at genteel salon in a Mendelssohnian slow movement and a melodious if rather unremarkable final one.

The Farrenc Sonata comes as a period of light relief and relative calm in a sea of passion and turbulence, for the Saint-SaŽns Sonata is a tempestuous work, brilliantly executed here. It is a relatively early work showing the composer full of the hot-headed passions and throbbing emotions of a young man keen to make his mark on Parisian society (it was written in 1872 for the inaugural public concert of the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique which Saint-SaŽns had founded the previous year). Sadly for his mother, it proved too hot-headed and emotionally throbbing; and in respect for her feelings (even well into his 30s he was still very much tied to her apron strings) he re-wrote the original finale, although the revised one is seething enough with passion and pent-up feeling, but by incorporating quotes from a popular opera of the day - Meyerbeer’s L’Africane, which Martin suggests might have been a favourite of the mother, he possibly sought to gain her approval. This is an astonishingly vivid and thrusting performance, the first movement brilliantly executed with its rapid piano scales and quick-fire cello figures, the second much in the style of a jaunty dance, Berlin and Martin showing remarkable synchronicity as they alternate seamlessly between a pattering bass figure and a singing melodic line, and the finale full of nervous energy and lightning quick repartee between two players who are clearly not only at the very peak of their respective games, but also totally at one in their interpretative approach to this repertory.

As a calming finale after all that youthful passion, we have a version of The Swan (from the Carnival of the Animals), which, at first sight, seems merely a piece of audience-candy, but given this gorgeously affecting performance, comes as a magical conclusion to a disc of exceptional interest and superb playing.

Marc Rochester

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