The Brahms cello sonatas in E minor and F major are two pillars of the cello repertoire and represent, rightly so, the first career peak for performers. Together they cover the full range of emotion, from dark, brooding introspection to the playful nature of the middle movements. Written 21 years apart, they are united by a slow movement, which was originally conceived for the first but found its home in the second two decades later.
The first sonata, in E minor (Op. 38), starts with a dramatic main theme in the minor, stated without preamble in the cello against muted piano chords. Clein coaxed a beautifully raw, rich sound out of her instrument, complemented by an extremely sensitive pianistic touch from accompanist Katya Apekisheva. What was striking from the first few minutes of the concert was the true partnership between the performers; the chemistry between them was evident – the interweaving melodic lines were perfectly balanced and when the two players came together in thirds the phrasing was almost telepathically synchronised.
The joy of Brahms is in the fleeting mood changes, and this was evident in the dance-like character of the second movement. The graceful Minuet suggests the "bachelor about town", and this joyful mood flows over into the effusive melody of the Trio. Both Clein and Apekisheva utilised the contrasting registers of their instruments to great effect. The richness of the lower string registers was equally satisfying in this movement, but this was juxtaposed with beautiful singing melodies in the higher registers, which were poised and beautifully controlled. Both performers are very visual on stage, and we really felt the strength and musicality of each of them. Clein was completely involved in the music, and even during the solo piano interludes, her body language captured the imagination of the whole audience. The 'thundering fugue' of the final movement is borrowed from Contrapunctus XIII in Bach's Art of Fugue, in which the triplets of the main theme are counterbalanced by the punching duple-time countersubject. The enthusiastic applause that erupted after the final flourish was well deserved.
The missing second movement came to fruition in 1886, with the completion of Brahms' Op. 99 in F major, along with an outpouring of chamber music which also produced a violin sonata (no. 2) and a piano trio, all composed while on holiday near Lake Thun in Switzerland. Another dramatic opening is juxtaposed with a lyrical second theme and a soaring developmental section, in which the beautiful balance between instruments was evident. The traditional concert etiquette of maintaining silence between movements was almost a shame after the tempestuous opening movement.
The second movement is filled with uneasy tensions which are displayed in the creeping pizzicato chords of the opening, which is later repeated in the higher registers. This anguish is released in the lusty Allegro passionato of the third movement, in which tumbling triplets meet duple time – one of Brahms' favourite musical devices. The concert came to a close with a traditional, good-natured Rondo movement, which seemed to sum up the feeling of the evening rather nicely. After a good recital, there is always a feeling of having eaten a hearty three-course meal and the high-spirited finale was a wonderfully sweet dessert to end a beautiful evening.
Clein and Apekisheva were called back to the stage for two further encores, in which they treated us to a pair of Webern cello pieces, which were composed in 1899 in homage to Brahms. Delicately played and filled with grace and elegance, they created a beautiful atmosphere and brought the concert to an extremely tasteful and satisfying close. What a treat!
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