CHOPIN: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65; SCHUMANN: 3 Fantasiestuecke, Op. 73; GRIEG: Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 36 – Inbal Segev, cello/ Juho Pohjonen, piano – Avie AV2389, 70:13 (7/20/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I have had this album on my mind for several months, but I hadn’t quite collected my thoughts—and this despite my having review other cellists, like Isserlis, in the Chopin Sonata. Recorded 4-6 October 2017, the works performed by Segev and Pohjonen at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York have rather haunted me for the sonority of the instruments and easy brio of the collaboration.  The artists themselves claim the acoustic at the recording venue plays a significant role in the success of the album. Segev plays a 1673 Ruggieri instrument that carries a burnished tone that sounds like a ripe viola at its high end. Pohjonen has been one of the darlings of the Music@Menlo festival in California, and I have had the privilege of having heard him in many concerts.

Portrait of Chopin

Chopin

Chopin’s Cello Sonata of 1846-1847, conceived for his friend, the Paris cellist Auguste Franchomme (1804-1884), manages to combine the piano’s capability for declamation and brilliant flourishes with the cello’s natural vocal capacities, especially in its baritone register. Since the instruments share the melodic lines, each participant has his and her own moments of bel canto and contrapuntally independent line as the other instrument proceeds.  As many as three themes intertwine in the opening movement, Allegro moderato.  When the surging momentum pulls back, both Segev and Pohjonen adjust their scale to a salon intimacy that proves affecting. The last pages, however, recover much of the heroic mode in soaring exclamations. The witty Scherzo has an elan and a glossy, shimmering sensibility that crosses Mendelssohn with Schumann. The music suddenly segues into a noble waltz from Segev’s cello over fleet and fluid arpeggios from Pohjonen. The Largo presents one of the concentrated miracles of which Chopin was capable, a 27-measure Largo that unfolds as a self-possessed, cello nocturne over the keyboard’s eighth notes. The contest of dotted rhythms against triplets provides much of the Finale: Allegro movement’s complexity. A dramatic sort of rondo, the music becomes lush in chromatic harmonies, typical of the late Chopin style—as in the Polonaise-Fantasie—that moves through a series of canonic gestures to a G Major coda that our principals make convincing for its sense of emotional closure.

Portrait of Schumann

Schumann

Schumann first wrote his 1849 Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces for clarinet and piano, making the cello transcription himself.  The opening A minor piece, “tender and expressive,” gives us a rolling series of arpeggios in the keyboard, while the melody features a rising semitone that becomes somewhat obsessive. The agitation subsides into repose in the tonic major. The second piece, energetically lively, begins in a nervous A Major, since the piano’s triplets counter duple eighths in the cello line.  Some hearty chromatics lead to a middle section in F Major, before Segev takes us back to the opening motif and its quiet close. “Quickly and with fire” indicates Schumann for the last piece, which rarely relents in its stormy sentiments. The momentum swells and ebbs,  and the two participants drive hard in their respective parts, especially since Schumann demands “Quicker” two times in the coda whose fire resolves with a definitive thump.

Portrait of Edvard Grieg

Grieg

Edvard Grieg’s 1882 Cello Sonata in several respects with his own Piano Concerto for dramatic continuity and his Peer Gynt for rustic, melodic simplicity.  The deep warmth of the cello part suits Segev’s Ruggieri instrument well, while the brilliant, often bravura piano part seems common fodder for Pohjonen’s especial virtuosity. The fact that Grieg takes a “short cut” by quoting himself from both a wedding march and a funeral march deters us not at all from savoring the man’s innate capacity for chamber music intimacy and unabashed sincerity of expression.  The first movement, however, conveys its own fire and dark passion, perhaps the result of an illness that plagued Grieg at the time, with its concomitant thoughts on mortality. The Andante molto tranquillo begins with piano chimes from Pohjonen, over which Segev plays a reminiscence of the Sigurd Josalfar funeral march. The middle section reveals some emotional turmoil, intensely layered in the manner of Schubert, only to reach a paroxysm and then return, gratefully, to the consolations of the original melody. Shades of the Op. 16 Piano Concerto reappear in the expansive Allegro molto e marcato last movement, which opens quietly but soon teases us into a flighty folk dance. Segev has urgent plucked chords to counter the flourishes from Pohjonen, but then the Peer Gynt melodic turn arrives, at least in the manner of many of the composer’s best Lyric Pieces. Pohjonen’s piano serves an “orchestral” function soon enough, only to revert to the frantic dance tune whose wildness assumes a bit of Beethoven proportions. The development section blusters as much as it cavorts playfully or sings wistfully, but the composer wishes to resolve all passionate tensions in A Major. The Israeli cellist and Finnish pianist have taken to this Norwegian masterpiece with an entirely idiomatic relish that, as I state early in this review, has nagged at and seduced my musical imagination.

—Gary Lemco

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