Johannes Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Violoncello in e minor, op. 38, & in F major, op. 99
Matei Varga (piano), Laura Buruiana (violoncello)
Recorded at the Salle Colonne, Paris (August 4-7, 2011) – 51’26
Coviello Classics Digital CD COV 51204 – Booklet in German and English with Photos, Program Notes and Biographies
Cello Sonatas? They are one of the backbones of the standard cello repertoire; they have been performed and recorded by every major cellist within living memory. The cello sonatas are played every season, and may be found on the programs of every cellist who is engaged by major concert series around the world. In general they are beloved by the public and by musicians alike. Tchaikovsky loathed them, as he did Brahms’ Violin Concerto. He felt they lacked true inspiration and genius because Brahms was too constrained and concerned over Germanic rules of compositional structure and form, thereby lacking the freedom and imagination of a true Romantic.
It is quite true that Brahms struggled over the creation of these sonatas. The first sonata was begun in 1862, but not completed until 1865. It contains only three movements, not the standard four. Brahms had originally composed an adagio movement, which was much loved by Clara Schumann, who deeply regretted that Brahms withdrew the movement before publication.
Brahms desired to pay homage to J. S. Bach in this First Sonata, and based the main theme of the first movement and the ensuing fugue upon Contrapunctus 3 of The Art of the Fugue. He again draws upon thematic material from the work of Bach in the last movement. Tchaikovsky, who himself was a great composer and improviser of many fugues, found this borrowing from Bach on Brahms’ part, particularly dull and unimaginative. To make these criticisms today on such revered works would certainly cause outrage and scandal, but as this appraising comes from Tchaikovsky it certainly offers food for thought. Tchaikovsky published these criticisms in a European newspaper. One can only hope that Brahms, who suffered enormously from self doubt, never read these words.
The Second Sonata was composed more than twenty years later. Like all of Brahms later works it shows great authority and mastery of architecture. It is sparse in its use of any extraneous thematic material or counter subjects. It is extremely difficult to play however, and the first movement is considered one of the most difficult passages in the entire body of 19th Century cello literature. It has therefore drawn, as one can certainly imagine, the most brilliant cellists of each new generation to undertake their own interpretation of the work. It is curious to note that by this time in Brahms’ career, he felt no need whatever to pay homage or borrow thematically from anyone. One wonders if Tchaikovsky perhaps had a higher opinion of this sonata?
Romanian cellist Laura Buruiana, whose performances I have much admired with the Trio Brancusi, gives a most satisfactory and satisfying interpretation of the sonatas. Her work is distinguished by a rich and singing tone from her instrument, and clean and well articulated passage work. Her approach to the Brahms sonatas is restrained and she opts for a disciplined and refined classical approach to the music rather than a typical Romantic style of abandon and bravura. This style works very well with these pieces and imbues the music with a spiritual dignity that I think Brahms was intending to express.
She is partnered at the piano by a very young Matei Varga. You would only know his youth from his photo. His playing is mature and marked by a technical security that belies his years. The piano part in these sonatas is not merely accompaniments to cello solos, but is an equal partner in the musical lines. In fact it is often the piano that has the large moments, while the cello takes a back seat for a while. Therefore the pianist for these sonatas must be a soloist in his or her own right. Mr. Varga’s technical security and maturity of style and interpretation clearly demonstrate his ability in this regard.
The performances are beautifully realized and the audio technicians have done a superb job with the warm and clean recorded sound. This disc is a pleasure to listen to, and would make a fine addition to any home library.
Unfortunately, like any pieces of the standard chamber music repertoire for cello, this performance stands side by side to those of Yo Yo Ma, Julian Lloyd Webber, Emanuel Feuermann, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatagorski, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Jacqueline du Pré, Janos Starker, and a few hundred more! This is very stiff competition indeed. Nonetheless I enjoyed this particular performance very much, and if you are looking for something new, this will not disappoint you.