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BRAHMS: Cello Sonatas ‒ Brian Thornton, cello / Spencer Myer, piano ‒ Steinway & Sons

BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38; Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 ‒ Brian Thornton, cello / Spencer Myer, piano ‒ Steinway & Sons 30081, 55:29 (6/16/17) **** 

If you like your Brahms with drive and interpretive forthrightness. . . .

While the First Sonata leaves me a bit cold, the Second Sonata is far and away my favorite Brahms sonata and probably my favorite cello sonata period. In a way, the two works are mirror images of each other. Sonata No. 1 was the first sonata that Brahms wrote for piano and another instrument. Originally, it was supposed to have four movements just like Sonata No. 2, but somewhere along the line Brahms decided to scrap the slow movement; the piece ended up with three more-or-less fast movements. Some scholars believe that the projected slow movement was not scrapped at all but became the second movement of Sonata No. 2 written more than twenty years later.

The First Sonata begins with a rather lugubrious theme played in the cello’s lowest register; in contrast, the Second Sonata starts impetuously, with churning tremolos in the piano, over which the cello rises to its very highest register! The two sonatas end very differently too. Sonata No. 1 concludes with a learned fugue that for me is a musical wet blanket, while Sonata No. 2 ends in a rondo that is all Viennese gamütlichkeit. Well, maybe not all: there is a darkly passionate minor-key episode along the way.

In fact, the First Sonata betrays that pedantic quality Brahms sometimes indulged in to his detriment. The fugal finale is a tribute to the composer’s love of pre-Classical music, especially Bach, while the second movement minuet is a tribute to the Classical masters Brahms mostly modeled his music on. A charmer, it’s one of the best things about the sonata, a perfect counterbalance to the heavy weather found in the first and last movements.

Ah, but the Second Sonata has so many good things in it! That brightly buoyant first movement is followed by one of Brahms’s most deeply felt slow movements, in which the cello memorably intones the main theme in pizzicati, a gesture that returns just as memorably in the finale. At the very end of the movement, the cellist employs a “‘pizzicato slide,’ where the left hand changes the pitch on a single pluck of the string” (Peter Laki). It’s a novel and striking effect, especially in a movement that’s as charmingly insouciant as Brahms can manage to be.

In contrast, the third movement scherzo is a driven affair in F minor. Brian Thornton and Spencer Myer choose a perfect tempo here and deliver the goods in a performance that is sheer élan. For comparison, I listened to an oldie but goodie, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in an RCA Red Seal recording made way back in 1985. As with almost every other movement in both works, Ma and Ax are slower than Thornton and Myer, in this movement with especially negative results. So it’s ironic that in the Allegro molto finale of the Second Sonata, Ax and Ma are over twenty seconds faster and catch the exuberance of the music more effectively. I think the one miscalculation in Thornton and Myer’s interpretation is that they begin the rondo’s A theme too slowly and recessively, though they do manage to right themselves quickly enough. After that disappointing start, the movement is mostly a success.

I find their performance of the First Sonata both well played and idiomatic, as fine a one as I can remember hearing. And except for my quibble with the players over their interpretive choice in the finale of the Second Sonata, overall, this is an excellent performance as well. Brian Thornton is a forceful presence throughout, playing with the slightly throaty tone quality that I recall in the playing of his teacher, Lynn Harrell. By contrast, Yo-Yo Ma’s tone is more rounded and mellifluous. And Ma’s partner, Emanuel Ax, provides what I’d call a more “cushioned” accompaniment than Spencer Myer, whose playing is more forthright and impactful, less inclined to rhythmic license. I’m glad to know both performances and can recommend Thornton and Spencer to all who like their Brahms with a little less sentiment, a bit more drive. Fine sound from Steinway & Sons as well, thanks to engineer Michael Bishop.

—Lee Passarella

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