Tuesday 8 March 2016

Cello Music from Austria-Hungary - Beethoven, Artur Schnabel and Emmanuel Moor

Cello music from Austria Hungary - Navona Records
Beethoven, Schnabel, Moor; Samuel Magill, Beth Levin; 
Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 4 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A sonata for unaccompanied cello at the centre of this recital of unfamiliar repertoire from the Austro-Hungarian Empire

This disc from Navona Records, Cello Music from Austria-Hungary, contains three works which are rarely performed despite the presence ot two well known names, Beethoven and Schnabel. Cellist Samuel Magill and pianist Beth Levin have put together an intriguing programme with Beethoven's Sonata in A major Op. 47 'Kreutzer' arranged for cello and piano by Carl Czerny and Auguste Franchomme, the Sonata for solo cello by Artur Schnabel and the Ballade in E major Op.171 by Emmanuel Moor.

Samuel Magill is a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He and Levin open with the transcription of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny made an arrangement of the sonata following Beethoven's suggestion. This edition was lost for 160 years and only resurfaced in 1992. Czerny simplified the violin part when transposing it for cello, and Magill has included passages from a later transcription by cellist Auguste Franchomme which is truer to the original.

Samuel Magill - photo Richard Blinkoff
Samuel Magill - photo Richard Blinkoff
The cello is a far bigger instrument than the violin, so inevitably the dramatic chords and string crossings of Beethoven's violin part have a rather different effect and can occasionally sound effortful. Magill starts off with bravura attack and the Presto section of the opening movement is full of vigorous energy. This is a big boned, vibrant performance, ferocious at times, despite some finely sung moments. The Andante con variazioni starts with some beautifully sung tone from Magill, but as the movement develops we appreciate the varieties of timbre and texture that Magill and Levin bring to the work. The finale is full of vigour and verve, with great impetus and fierce energy.

This transcription undoubtedly provides a wonderful challenge for cellists, and Magill responds with strong technique, though it is frankly a work that I could be content to hear only occasionally. Magill is well supported by Beth Levin whose playing brings a combination of poetry and neat HIP sensibility to bear whilst matching Magill's vigour.

Artur Schnabel started composing at the age of 13 and continued to do so in parallel to his piano playing career, though he composed in fits and starts with occasional fallow period. Given his fondness, as a pianist, for Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, it is somewhat of a surprise to find him writing atonally. He did not follow Schoenberg's 12 tone system but wrote in a more free style. This sonata for solo violoncello was written in 1931, probably for the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who played with Schnabel in piano trios, along with violinist Carl Flesch.

The opening Allegro con moto is an intense movement. Dark and brooding in atmosphere, the writing rather reminded me of Shostakovich, despite the free atonality. The second movement Allegretto is a buzzing moto perpetuo which Schnabel interrupts. He was evidently fond of the technique of Aposiopesis, the use of frequent gaps in music, and here it gives a real sense of a dialogue. The Larghetto third movement is a slow sung melancholy one, akin to keening. The final movement Vivace ma non troppo starts off vigorous with strong attack from Magill, but there are more lyrical moments. In the central section the music seems to fragment, and though the vigorous music returns, a the music fades away to nothing at the end. This is a terrific yet taxing work in a fine performance from Magill. I do hope this performance will encourage other performers.

Emmanuel Moor was a Hungarian who studied in Vienna with Bruckner. A pianist as well as composer, he lived for a period in London before settling in Switzerland. He wrote a number of works for the great cellist Pablo Casals, who valued his talent very highly. The Ballade for Violoncello and Orchestra in E major was dedicated to Casals in 1913 but never published. Magill and Levi play the composer's version for cello and piano. It is very late Romantic in style, and the material has folk-ish hints, overall it rather reminded me of Grieg. A pleasant work, but not one which seems to support the extremely high opinion that Casals had of the composer

Samuel Magill and Beth Levin have assembled a fascinating trio of relatively neglected works. Both performers display fine technique, though the recording makes the piano sound rather dry. The transcription of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata is a striking piece, but for me it is Schnabel's sonata for solo cello which makes this recording worth returning to.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), transcribed Carl Czerny and Auguste Franchomme - Sonata in A major 'Kreutzer' (1803)
Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) - Sonata for solo cello (1931)
Emmanuel Moor (1863-1931) - Ballade in E major Op.171 (1913)
Samuel Magill (cello)
Beth Levi (piano)
Recorded 19,20 March, 21,22 May 2015 at West Center Congregational Church, Bronxville, New York

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