Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Emanuel Gruber, cello; Arnon Erez, piano
Eroica JDT3227; 1:49 (2-CD Set)
Like-minded musicians give us a Beethoven set that shines
The glorious give-and-take of chamber music is often characterized as conversational. What’s not usually talked about is that this means there are usually points in which one interlocutor accidentally interrupts or talks over another. In music, it’s an organic element we come to expect and even appreciate when there is no conductor. But sometimes, as is the case in this splendid disc, a performance can sound conducted, so like-minded are the musicians in the dialogue. In tackling the complete music for cello and piano of Beethoven, cellist Emanuel Gruber and pianist Arnon Erez shape with such thoughtfulness and precision that it seems someone has to be directing the whole affair. The recording moves with confidence towards goals, eliciting the inherent climaxes and interpretative arcs of the music while never sacrificing accuracy.
There are many excellent recordings of the cello sonatas available. By and large only very serious and capable cellists and pianists seem to attempt them. But where one does separate good from the best surely are the two later Op 102 Sonatas. Here, the musicality of Gruber and Erez shines. The first never seems pressed, yet catapults from theme to theme with uncommon verve. In particular, the contours of the Allegro vivace display bursts of energy while never sacrificing lyricism. The second is given a noble treatment, extending into a stately reading of the fugal finale.
The rest of the two-disc set does not want for compelling phrasing, too. The early Op 5 Sonatas find Gruber and Erez balancing the clarity of each measure with its greater context in the movement well. It’s a traditional reading but robust and musical. The three variation sets benefit from the holistic treatment, though they are almost performed too seriously. Overall, don’t be thrown by the small label or lesser-known names. This is a strong effort that fits in quite favourably with some of the best recordings available.
All Music Guide
The music is well considered and competently executed throughout. The inclusion of Beethoven three sets of variations is a
bonus. The album represents a good example of musicians doing their jobs well.
American Record Guide
I have seldom heard the early sets of variations played with more
enjoyment. The sonatas are also played with musicality and sensitive
phrasing. What I find most memorable here are the hesitations, the
silences. Their timing in the phrases is spot-on and full the of
sensitivity to the speaking character of the music.
Back in 2000 Harry Downey wrote in his review of the Harrell/Ashkenazy recording of the five numbered sonatas (Decca 466 733-2) that reissues were the order of the day. Since then we’ve had a regular stream of new
recordings of these works: Adrian and Alfred Brendel on Philips 475 379-2 and Miklós Perényi and András Schiff on ECM New Series 4724012 both of which I’ve heard. There have been others including Pieter Wispelwey/Dejan
Lazić which I haven’t encountered but would like to! Beside these new goodies we must set famous versions from Casals/Serkin; Du Pré/Barenboim; Rostrapovich/Richter; the list is extensive. They happen to fit well on two CDs
if the wonderful variations are included.
These recordings by a duo previously unknown to me were made in 2001 and have only just been released. So how does this new set compare. Pretty well I’d say on the basis that a definitive version is impossible.
This set takes them the five sonatas out of sequence; which is fine. I love these pieces but I would suggest that you do not play the two discs straight off. Treat them singly and savour their differing delights. The first disc
has one Op. 5 dating from 1796 and No. 4 from thirty years later. I thought both were splendid and I was immediately struck by the rapport between the two players. The sound is first rate and captures their instruments very
effectively. The second movement of the first sonata reminds me mischievously of "Black Adder" but whatever, this is good musicianship. The second half of CD1 is given over to the three sets of variations. These are not
always recorded; sadly for me Askenazy/Harrell in their otherwise fine rendition leave them out. What an omission; to me they are a highpoint among Beethoven’s works. In particular the Handel variations are terrific. Here
they are played with much vigour and aplomb.
On CD 2 the duo starts with another early work Op. 5 No. 2. I was absolutely captivated by their fine playing. At no stage did I feel one player was dominating or being over-reverential. They played as a partnership and
clearly love these works. As I’m sure many are aware these works were written as piano and cello pieces; the piano is equally important.
The A Major Sonata, Op. 69 is from 1807/8 when Beethoven was writing his Fifth Symphony which has an adjacent opus number. This wonderful piece, my favourite, has a slow beginning bursting into flower. This is
followed by a jaunty and swaggering Scherzo. And how these players turn it on in this piece; the third movement begins with a heart-rending adagio and whilst memories of Jacqueline Du Pré and Daniel Barenboim on EMI
Classics 5 74447 2 can never be erased these two are certainly worth listening to. Comparing them with the above-mentioned I was very wrapped up in these performances and am so pleased to have discovered them. I also
thought they were more emotionally into the pieces than Harrell and Ashkenazy from the comparisons that I made.
Comparisons are necessary because this is such a crowded field. Brendel father and son showed some imbalance of the instruments. I have problems with Alfred Brendel at times and found his playing in the variations
verging on the fussy and detracting from the cello. András Schiff is a restrained player in comparison but the performances on ECM with Miklós Perényi were in some ways superior to Gruber and Erez. What I found staggering
was turning to an old (1966) recording EMI CDM79691792 of Du Pré and Kovacevich playing the third sonata. This is simply electrifying and is without the coughing that intrudes inevitably on her later Edinburgh set with her
husband. What a tragedy that Jacqui never recorded a complete cycle in the studio. However, for those happy to have multiple versions (with a tolerant wife!) and keen to listen to new players these discs will give hours of
pleasure. I would love to have time to play and compare all the versions I own - maybe in the future!
I was really unsure about this release before I played it, most of all as to a delay over release and because of the many other distinguished recordings available. I needn’t have worried. These players are highly skilled and
– most importantly - musical in their playing.
-David R Dunsmore