Thursday 13 June 2013

Brahms music for cello and piano

SOMMCD 0126 Vivat Brahms!Brahms' first Cello Sonata dates from the early 1860's and reflects the young composer's lyrical passion. This new disc on Somm from cellist James Barralet and pianist Simon Callaghan pairs the work with Barralet's own transcriptions of Brahms' 21 Hungarian Dances. The disc is promised as volume one in a series of Brahms' cello works.

Brahms moved to Vienna in 1863 and struck up a friendship with amateur cellist Joseph Gansbacher and the two would play chamber music together in Brahms' flat. Brahms dedicated his Cello Sonata in E minor to Gansbacher. The work may have been inspired by the fact that Edmund Lalo had just published a cello sonata, but earlier works in the genre by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Beethoven would have been known to the two. Also, the current final movement pays tribute both in its form (a fugue) and its fugue subject to the work of Bach, reflecting Brahms' interest in baroque music.

The first two movements of the sonata date from 1862, when Brahms also wrote an Adagio, a movement he subsequently withdrew adding instead the current finale, Allegro, in 1865. Thus leaving the work without a real slow movement and causing a minor puzzle about where the Adagio ended up, with commentators arguing for its re-use in another work (possibly the Cello Sonata in F major from 1886, but Robert Matthew Walker in his notes speculates that Brahms may have recycled it in the Trio, Opus 40 for Violin, Horn and Piano).

The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is the longest. Here Barralet display the burnished singing tone which he uses throughout the disc. The piano tone is admirably clear, and the two performers bring a nice clarity to the work. This is very much an impulsive young men's performance without any portentousness or over-cooked romantic tone.

Barralet's rich tones contrast nicely with the piano. There is a wonderful impulsion to the passionate moments with nice flexible rubato using lots of small adjustments rather than big gestures. Though the two give a poetic account of the music, there are moments when I wished that they would get go a bit more.

The sonata is marked as being for piano and violoncello, reflecting the importance of the piano part to Brahms. Barralet and Callaghan have a well balanced partnership with good give and take between them.

The second movement, Allegretto quasi menuetto, goes with a nice elegant bounce, with an element of humour and wit which contrasts with the enticing seriousness of the trio section. The fugal final movement, Allegro, is vigorous and delightfully articulated rising to moments of great intensity and power.

The sonata makes considerable demands on both players, demands which they cope with in a delightful insouciance.

The remainder of the disc, some 54 minutes, is devoted to Brahms 21 Hungarian Dances. These were originally written for piano duet, for performance at home, and published between 1869 and 1880. Brahms orchestrated some (and at his behest, Dvorak also orchestrated some for Brahms' publisher), and the composer also arranged some of them for piano solo. Here Barralet has arranged them all for cello and piano in transcriptions which sound convincingly faithful to the originals.

The results have great charm and plenty of gypsy-themed schwung, but also give Barralet a chance to display his soulful side,with some gloriously played melodies. Barralet is well supported by Callaghan's deft piano work and the two make some delightful combinations in the music, combining gypsy passion with delicacy and passion. But at nearly an hour, the Hungarian Dances are perhaps something to dip into rather than to listen to at one sitting. For me, after listen to half a dozen or so their charms rather palled.

The disc comes with an excellent background article by Robert Matthew-Walker, and if you read the small print you notice that James Barralet also edited the disc.

There is some lovely playing on this disc, with the two young players bringing a nice freshness to this music. Most people will want the cello sonata in their library played by the great cellist of their choice, but I think that there is room for this appealing disc as well.

Vivat Brahms!
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Sonata for cello and piano no. 1 in E minor, op 18 [24.50]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Hungarian Dances, arr. Barralet [54.34]
James Barralet (cello)
Simon Callaghan (piano)

Recorded at Champs Hill, Pulborough, West Sussex, 25 September 2012 (Sonata), the Old Granary Studio, Suffolk, 11 January 2013 (Hungarian Dances)

SOMM SOMMCD0126  1CD [79.37]

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