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March 20, 2006

Salingaros on the Brahms Cello Sonatas

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was pleased to hear the other day from our friend, the mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. Since he has been very busy recently, I was doubly pleased that Nikos also included an enthusiastic review of a classical music CD. It's a treat to present his review. Nikos has a sophisticated musical palate, and he's tuned into an important cultural phenomenon I know almost nothing about, the independent-recording-company world. I just clicked on the "buy" button myself, and I'm looking forward to what sounds like some very yummy music. Here's Nikos' review.


By Nikos A. Salingaros

I wish to share my discovery of an extraordinary recording of these extraordinary works. Johannes Brahms created here, in these two pieces, an orchestral rainbow of sound using only a cello and a piano. The piano was Brahms's instrument, and he was a master at writing pianistic works, but the pairing of the cello adds a sensuousness to the very powerful pianism of the score. (This sonority is further developed in the better-known piano trios). For this reason, I prefer these pieces to Brahms's otherwise impeccable works for solo piano. The two cello sonatas are among his most moving creations, and indeed, of any other composer. It is a pity that they are not as well known as they deserve. Readers know that I am a champion of independent record producers, and I am delighted to have found the recording by the stunningly beautiful cellist Nancy Green. (here's her personal website.) She is joined in this rendition by the world-class (though vastly underappreciated) American pianist Frederick Moyer. Only words such as "sublime" and "majestic" can describe these performances.

I strongly recommend immediate purchase of this CD, which couples the only two complete cello/piano sonatas that Brahms wrote: Opus 38 and Opus 99. One can order it online from JRI Recordings.

Why is it that these pieces come closest to the greatest music that Brahms ever created; ranking alongside the Piano, String, and Clarinet Quintets? He also wrote the beautiful Violin/Piano and the Clarinet/Piano sonatas, yet the Cello/Piano sonatas are somehow special because of their tonal balance and dark, brooding sonority. If a cello is played well, or is well-recorded, it touches the inner self more deeply than the violin.

Some questions now come to mind. (i) What about other recordings of these pieces? (ii) What about other recordings by this team? I'm happy to give my answers to both.

(i) My second favorite recording of the Brahms cello sonatas is also produced by an independent label. David Finckel plays the cello and Wu Han the piano, in a very different but no less enjoyable interpretation. (David Finckel is the cellist of the celebrated Emerson String Quartet). This recording has replaced my long-time favorite by Janos Starker and Gyorgy Sebok. Finckel/Han share the same driven, powerful approach, this time much better recorded than the older Starker/Sebok account. I enjoy their interpretation immensely, even though it is very different and a little faster than Green/Moyer (which is now by far my favorite). The acoustic is also noticeably different: Green/Moyer place the cello slightly to the left to separate it from the piano on the right, whereas Finckel/Han have the cello right in front of the piano. This recording is produced by and also has to be ordered online (here).

My friend Monsieur Jacques Polis, the proprietor of Digital Signature of Verviers, Belgium, tells me of an extremely fine recording of the Brahms cello sonatas by Rama Jucker and Werner Giger (Accord), which has unfortunately disappeared from the market. I have been unable to find it anywhere. Perhaps Magnatune can be persuaded to seek it out and offer it again from its site. Incidentally, I am a great fan of Magnatune (see my recommendations below), and believe it will play an increasingly large role in democratizing music in the future.

(ii) Anyone hearing the Green/Moyer CD will wish for more Brahms from the same team. It is a bit of a disappointment that Brahms wrote only two cello sonatas. Nevertheless, Green/Moyer have recorded his Hungarian Dances, in a cello/piano transcription by Brahms's contemporary, Alfredo Piatti. Brahms originally wrote these ever-popular pieces for two pianos, then he himself transcribed them for either full orchestra, or for solo piano. The two-piano version is seldom played in concert, while the solo piano reworking loses some of the original's musical richness -- there is simply too much music there for only ten fingers. (Also, all the Hungarian dances were not transcribed for one piano). I'm happy to say that the cello/piano version is simply wonderful. It preserves the musical richness of the two-piano version, while adding the special sonority of the cello. It can be ordered from JRI Recordings. These pieces are lush and romantic. If you are not in a romantic mood, then go for some Bach or Beethoven for solo instrument (see below). Brahms here is at his most romantic, and the music is so lush you can eat it with a spoon like whipped cream!

Purists might quibble about listening to a transcription, but then, some people enjoy hearing the cello/piano versions of Brahms's violin/piano sonatas (transcribed not by Brahms), as well as viola/piano versions of his clarinet/piano sonatas. I prefer those in their original form, however.

In closing, let me again urge musical readers to support independent recording companies as much as possible. The major record companies (part of larger conglomerates) spend most of their budget on promotion and advertising, and not on extending our musical experience, or helping musicians in general. They pick a few competent musicians and have them record all the repertoire, usually several times over. Oftentimes, the independent artists leave the more "famous" artists in the dust musically; we simply don't know about them because they cannot compete with the multinational CD producers' advertising power.

Future recordings I will like to find time to review include the following. In the meantime, readers may check these out for themselves:

Bach: Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas and Partitas, performed by Garrett Fischbach (buyable here).

Bach: Unaccompanied Cello Suites, performed by Vito Paternoster (buyable here).

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, performed by Daniel-Ben Pienaar (buyable here).

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, performed by Maria Israilevna Grinberg (the Korean CD pressings can be bought here, and the Russian CD pressings can be bought here). These are the legendary recordings from the late 1960s available for the first time in decades, and moreover in excellent sound. Many pianists consider these the best interpretations ever!


Many thanks to Nikos, whom we look forward to hearing much more from. I urge latecomers (or recent-comers) to this blog to explore Nikos' previous contributions. A mind-blowing long q&a with him can be accessed via the "Interviews" button at the top of this page. (Try all the other interviews too! Lots of good stuff.) And if you type "Nikos Salingaros" into the Search box in the blog's left-hand column, you'll discover all kinds of wonders. Nikos' own website is a treasure-trove of brain-opening writing too. I'm very pleased to announce that Nikos' magnificent "A Theory of Architecture" will be published in book form by Umbau-Verlag this summer.



posted by Michael at March 20, 2006


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