Thursday, 10 January 2019

It’s not British, but Cello Sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninov

Like many people of my age who were discovering classical music in the early 1970s, I first came across Franz Schubert’s delightful Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824) on a Decca recording (SXL 6426) made by the magnificent combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. It had the added value of being coupled with Frank Bridge’s powerful Cello Sonata completed in 1917 and providing an enigmatic balance between ‘pastoralism’ and an exploration of a more recent European expressionism. Readers will forgive me if I admit that this recital has followed me since I bought the LP second-hand around 1971 and replaced it with the CD when it was released in 1995. I have not had recourse to any other version over the past 47 years. Neither have I heard this work played on the original ‘arpeggione.’
The Sonata was composed in 1824 at the behest of Vincenz Schuster, who was a virtuoso of the guitar-like instrument. Most subsequent performances have been played on the cello, as enthusiasm for the arpeggione had waned by the time Schubert’s work was published posthumously in 1871. The Sonata is full of splendid melodies, which seem to unfold one after the other. The opening theme is wistful, the adagio, hymn-like and the final allegretto is full of contrast and interest.
So, it is good to come across a version of this work which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall still regard the Rostropovich/Britten as my ideal, but I cannot fault the playing and the interpretation given by Jonathan Swensen and Filip Strauch. They present this music thoughtfully and with little attempt at providing anything other preserving the charming and well-managed naivete of this music.

A different story applies to my discovery of the Rachmaninov Sonata for cello and piano: I picked up on a performance by Paul Tortelier on Radio 3. The wonders of the internet suggest that this was probably part of the ‘Composer of the Week’ broadcast over the Christmas period of 1972. Although I cannot recall the details, it was most likely played from the HMV LP ASD 2587 with Aldo Ciccolini on the piano. I was bowled over by the entire work and felt that it was a chamber ‘pendant’ to my then recent discovery of the Rach.2 Piano Concerto. Pocket money (lack of) prevented me from buying this album. It struck a chord, and I did hear it on the wireless a few more times. I never subsequently bought a recording of this work but did have the opportunity to review Philip Handy’s reading (VIF RECORDS VRCD082) in 2013.  
Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata was composed at the turn of the 20th century, receiving its premiere on 2 December 1901. I have long thought that two things predominate in this work. Firstly, the piano part could tend to dominate, having a huge part in the proceedings. So much so, that it often seems as if the cello is providing a kind of ‘continuo’ for the piano. Much of the pianism seems to echo Rach. 2.  The other ‘strange’ feature of this sonata is that it almost seems to be a concerto. I have written before that if you half shut your eyes and imagine, your mind will supply the orchestral background. It is also a feature of much of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music.
The Sonata is presented in four contrasting movement. The dynamic ‘scherzo’ is placed second whilst the ‘andante’ features music that is both introspective and highly-charged with romance and passion. Both players have managed to avoid the pitfalls of making this sonata into one for piano with a cello ‘obligato’.

Not sure about the CD artwork. On the rear cover, both gentlemen appear to be raising their eyes heavenward for inspiration, whereas on the front, only the cellist is seeking divine aid. Strauch looks as if he is having a sulk. As seems to be the case with so many liner notes these days, the font is miniscule. Fortunately, I had a .pdf file provided, so I was able to discover that there is precious little discussion about the music, but considerably more about the soloists and their working relationship. I guess programme notes for these two works are easy to find on the ‘net, however I do think there ought to be something about the works given here.

This present CD is the debut recording of both musicians. They met the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 2014 and subsequently had a successful recital career around the world and in the television studios. It is a well-played disc that is surely an auspicious start to their recording career.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, op.19 (1901)
Jonathan Swensen (cello) Filip Strauch (piano)
Rec. Studio Hall of The Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, 2016/2018

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