BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in e, Op. 38; in F, Op. 99 – John Whitfield, cello/ James Winn, p. – MSR Classics MS 1516, 53:12 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
According the the liner notes, “John Whitfield has performed as a recitalist and chamber musician across the United States and abroad…A strong advocate of contemporary music, Whitfield has given New York and World premieres of numerous chamber works by such esteemed composers as Sebastian Currier, Mario Davidovsky, Aaron Jay Kernis, Steven Mackey and Julia Wolfe. His teachers include Robert Marsh at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Lawrence Lesser and Colin Carr at the New England Conservatory and Timothy Eddy at SUNY Stony Brook, where he earned the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts.” I did not know of him before encountering this disc, and the experience has been mostly pleasurable. Whitfield has a very smooth tone, whipped cream-like in texture, and a fine legato line, supported nicely by James Winn’s perceptive and timely partnership.
These two pieces could hardly be more different; separated by 20 years, the style, form, and emotional content of each presents quite a contrast and challenge for any performer. The First is a model of classical conformity and restraint, with a corresponding dramatic tone that is curiously baroque in feeling and manner. The Second comes from the autumnal year of 1886, and its outgoing aggressiveness is something that sets it apart from its first-ever duo sister of years earlier. There is no reserve here at all, and its emotional range is almost exhaustive.
What I find lacking here is a suitably “involved” attitude that effectively exploits this esoteric explosiveness that pervades the Second Sonata; Whitfield lacks nothing technical in the effective rendering of this piece, but it’s almost like he doesn’t want to get too involved, as if this would compromise the work and make it overly-dramatic. To be fair, this is often a problem in the world of Brahms interpretative discussion, but more than this is needed. Sonata 1 is just fine, and Whitfield’s correct adherence to the elegance of the early work fits nicely.
The sound is very natural and clean, albeit slightly unfocused in that the cello can sound a little distant–a volume boost helps.