RECORDS / Tenor steals the soprano's lines: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on works by Bach and Brahms for cello, piano, and violin

Click to follow
BACH: Six Suites for Violoncello

Anner Bylsma

(Sony S2K 48047 - two discs)

WHATEVER else Truly, Madly, Deeply achieved, the soundtrack showed that the old romantic- rhetorical style of Bach playing isn't dead yet. There was cellist Misha Maisky, pouring Slavic emphasis into every note - and not a dry eye in the house. Obviously a stern corrective is needed, and who better to administer it than the energetically style-conscious Belgian cellist, Anner Bylsma?

Purists who are hoping for just that are going to be disappointed. For five of the six suites Bylsma plays the famous 'Servais' Stradivarius cello: an 18th-century instrument, but (atrocity of atrocities) fitted with a 19th-century end-pin, played with an equally inauthentic bow, and tuned to something like modern pitch. All I can say is that if this had inspired Bylsma to get the wonderful results he has, then all credit to him. Here is a player who evidently knows his period Ps and Qs but whose playing lacks any sign of inhibition or scholarly self-consciousness.

The manner is open, eloquent, free from Byronic personal-dramatics on Maisky or Tortelier lines, but 'personal' none the less. The spirit of the dance is never far away, but Bylsma shows how adaptable that spirit can be: ecstatic, grave, confessional or simply good-humoured.

Sharp-eared listeners will notice that the change of cellos for the D major Sixth Suite (not loudly advertised by Sony) also means a drastic change of pitch - more like D flat major in context. But the new instrument, a five- string 'violoncello piccolo', storms the heights of Bach's writing with brilliance and surprising gracefulness. Excellent recordings - intimate, but with performer 'ambience' well tamed.

BYLSMA plays the 'Servais' Stradivarius of 1761 - a big, aristocratic instrument with a sound to match. The magnificence of the lower register will take your breath away: it's like adding another dimension to the great rolling sonorities of Bach's Preludes and Sarabandes, the latter searching but in a sense never finding. Therein lies the fascination. The only certainty of this music is that it gets more, not less, elusive: new secrets emerge, the complexion of the notes and the relationship between them changes with every musician who is alone with them.

Bylsma is well worth eavesdropping on: his craftsmanship is honest, plain-speaking, his Courantes, Gigues, Menuets and the like trip out with gritty exuberance, the grainy, woody sound at the top of the instrument as characteristic as its robust lower reaches. By the time you reach the skeletal Sarabande of Suite No 5 (next to Brahms this sounds positively avant-garde), you begin to feel you know Bylsma. There is no more revealing movement in the entire six suites; not one note to hide behind.

The contrast, then, with the brighter, higher, breezier world of the Sixth is intensified as Bylsma switches to a five-string piccolo cello (authentic and practical). You don't choose recordings of the Bach Cello Suites - you investigate them. Each is different, each a challenge: not, as Neville Cardus once said, 'worse than breaking stones'. Shame on him.

BRAHMS: Sonatas for Cello

and Piano

Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax

(Sony SK 48191)

THE TWO Cello Sonatas - some of Brahms's freshest and most directly appealing chamber music - find Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on best form. Ma manages to be as expressively generous as ever without once over-burdening Brahms's ideas - the old warning label 'classical-romantic' has obviously been taken to heart. The partnership with Emanuel Ax seems to get deeper with each new recording. In page after page exchanges of motif and texture are charged with emotional significance, while the notorious balance problems of the First Sonata's Bachian finale are almost forgotten - the sympathetic recording certainly helps here.

The big surprise was what looked at first like a clear case of CD 'filling' - an arrangement of the D minor Violin Sonata, Op 108. It transcribes beautifully for cello and piano, with hardly any adaptation. Remarkably, Brahms's textures lose little if anything of their former meaning, while some of the violin lines sing more ardently still when transferred to the tenor register. Young cellists keen for extra repertoire should try it - though rising to the challenge of the Ma-Ax performance would need more than mere effort.

A HAPPY union (or should I say reunion - this is their second recording of the Brahms sonatas). Nothing less will really do for these marvellous scores. Brahms writes for two as he would for one: he will give his cellist the ascendancy to lead from above, but almost imperceptibly withdraw the player to the darkest reaches of the C string to support and enrich the keyboard from below. The sense of shared experience, of oneness, is crucial.

While Ax attends to the chordal grandeur, fleshing out harmonies, reinforcing rhythms, Ma's famed sostenuto refreshes the legatos his partner - his alter ego - cannot reach. There is always more give than take in these performances: Ma and Ax are good listeners and passionate communicators, well matched in manner and temperament: you feel a part of their interactions, be it in the heat of development - Brahms plays some combative fugal games in the outer movements of the E minor Sonata - or the well-being of repose.

And they have a good nose for atmosphere: the development of the F major Sonata's first movement loses itself in a passage of mesmeric stillness with piano raptly musing over oscillating cello. The D minor Sonata for Violin and Piano sounds rather well now that its voice has broken. The question is - will the violin ever be able to reclaim that beautiful slow-movement melody? ES


Piers Lane (piano)

(Hyperion CDA 66607)

THE STRANGE story of a pallid young Russian romantic's transformation into heaven-assaulting modernist is comprehensively told in the 26 Etudes. Piers Lane - brilliant, delicate, wild by rapid turns - makes each miniature a major event.