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BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38; James Kreger, cello, Robert Preston, piano


Fanfare reviews copyright © 2016 by Fanfare, Inc. Used by permission.

the sense of the autumnal is palpable

This 1981 performance (audio only) is treasurable. No wonderfully atmospheric black and white video here (as in the Chopin, also reviewed this issue), but an audio-only performance of the highest integrity. By “integrity,” I mean this is a creditably egoless performance from Kreger. The music flows beautifully and seems to speak entirely naturally. In my review of Kreger’s Chopin on YouTube, I spoke of preferring Kreger’s less interventionist approach in comparison with Rostropovich. Here, again, it is that sense of knowing that wins out, a knowing born of a complete grasp of Brahms’s structural processes. The close recording reveals the warmth of Kreger’s playing and also gives him terrific presence, and while my colleague James Forrest found the piano reproduction occasionally uncomfortable, through my Sennheiser headphones the balance seemed generally excellent.

The repeat is taken in the first movement, taking it to some 13 and a half minutes, meaning the music seems to unfold with an internal, organic logic. It is worth noting that Kreger’s tuning is exemplary; that, coupled with his structural grasp, gives the impression that one is in the safest of hands. Robert Preston is an excellent partner (accompanist is so much the wrong word here). Yet for all that intellectual grasp, the sense of the autumnal is palpable; try the later stages of the first movement. The short second movement has great character; indeed there is almost a sense of noble, stately dance here as Brahms seems to nod way back in time before injecting his full voice into the musical surface. Preston’s way with the staccato figuration around the main theme on its return is delicious, as is the lead-in to the more enigmatic middle section. The equal partnership of Kreger and Preston pays highest dividends in the finale, where the intensity once more reaches that of the first movement with here, perhaps, more plateaux for respite. Yes, in the larger picture Kreger is up against the likes of Piatigorsky/Rubinstein (RCA or Testament, different performances) and of course Rostropovich/Serkin (DG), but even in that company his star hardly fades. Kreger and Preston exude the frisson of live performance (the audience is understandably enthusiastic at the close) and offer a most involving experience. —Colin Clarke

a quite remarkable YouTube capture

It is truly a mark of old age that, without a CD, DVD, or book in front of me, I can forget my reviewing responsibilities, no matter how outstanding the performances awaiting review. I had put away my inkpot and quill pen for this Fanfare issue, when the editor contacted me inquiring, none too gently, as to where my comments on James Kreger’s several YouTube selections were. “Still unwritten,” was my answer, but to play catch-up gave me an excuse (not that one is needed) to listen again, and in particular greatly to be moved by this Brahms performance. In the interests of full disclosure, James and I were reasonably well acquainted before we did an interview and profile in 2015, and in the year since, our friendship has grown—not, sadly, as “face to face” friends, but frequent correspondents. We share interests and have a lot in common in our musical tastes. That commonality of tastes is doubtless why I find James’ playing attractive and his recorded performances enjoyable.

The Brahms here, from a recital with pianist Robert Preston, is however more than just attractive, and I much more than just enjoy it. The work means a great deal to me, and I don’t think it is easy to put across. Most recorded performances get the opening wrong. Some are too monumental (which is the worse direction in which to err, I think), and a few start off too fast, which of course makes it impossible to get the succession of shifting themes right, because the proportions are out of sync. These artists get it just right. In his review, Jerry Dubins offers a useful analysis of that progression in the opening moments of the work. In non-technical terms, I think James and his colleague provide just the right amount of forward momentum, but combine it with a slight sense of holding back, pulling on the reins if you will, in order to clarify Brahms’s thematic introduction and development. Also, as Dubins notes, they observe the exposition repeat, which I think is particularly important in this work. Without it, the proportions are just wrong. I generally favor including repeats. Some, in Brahms, I can live without. (The exposition repeat in the first movement of the First Symphony is definitely one I’ll skip. Those of the next two symphonies I like but can live without.) But not here!

The opening movement of this work is serious business and so these artists treat it. The cellist digs in and his plangent tone is in full evidence in a quite remarkable YouTube capture. The reproduction is close up and at times in the first movement not entirely kind to piano tone, but the ear adjusts. The cellist’s tone can withstand such exposure and, as usual with this artist, his tonal richness fulfills the requirements of the music. The first movement is brought to a close with great sensitivity and expression.

The shorter second and third movements are equally satisfying. I particularly liked the lightness of touch in the “minuetto” section of the second movement, and the way in which the performers prepared for and then brought back the opening theme. The fervor of the third movement, not quite half as long as the opening movement but certainly as serious, seems just right and keeps the proportions of the work in balance.

And … it’s free, as Jerry Dubins pointed out. This is a more than adequate reproduction of a performance as good as any I know on disc. As good as the best and better than the rest—truly! In the fascinating discussion between Dubins and James, currently online in the Fanfare Archive, the cellist notes that he has no problem with his live performances being available, “warts and all.” I applaud that but must say—no warts here; only superb playing! —James Forrest

an intensely emotional performance…probing, penetrating, and profound

I suspect that for every listener who is intimately familiar with a given piece of music there is some special moment that carries a deeply personal, secret meaning; and it’s that listened-for moment that makes or breaks a performance in the heart and mind of each individual. For me, that moment in Brahms’s E-Minor Cello Sonata comes very early, namely at bar nine. I’ve spoken at length in past reviews about the “continuation gene,” the unteachable, unlearnable know-how a composer is born with to be able to extend a musical idea in a way that could not have been otherwise; it’s as if it has been foreordained. Brahms and every other great composer possessed this gene.

Now, try an experiment. Play the first eight bars of this cello sonata for someone who has never heard it before, and then stop it dead in its tracks, before it has a chance to go on. Ask the listener how he or she would continue it from that point forward if he or she were the composer. In the first eight bars, Brahms has presented the main theme, which outlines the E-Minor triad, and then introduces the secondary dominant (F♯-A♯-C♯) of the dominant (B-D-F♯) on its way to an expected cadence on the dominant, B-D-F♯, in measure eight. But expected as that cadence may be, it still comes with a surprise as Brahms turns the chord of arrival major: B-D♯-F♯.

Okay, so now what? C Major! And a longing and loneliness so intense it makes the heart ache. From the end of bar eight to the beginning of bar nine, without pause or modulation, Brahms takes us from B Major to C Major. No two keys are more distantly related than those that are adjacent by a half-step. How does Brahms accomplish this and make it sound as if it could not have been otherwise? Quite simply, he treats the B-Major chord (B-D♯-F♯) as if it were an altered leading-tone chord (VII), which would normally be diminished (B-D♮-F♮) in the key of C. You have only to look at the piano part to see what happens. The B, which is the actual leading-tone to C, moves up a half-step to C, the D♯ moves up a half-step to E, and the F♯ moves up a half-step to G. Voilá! C Major (C-E-G). Methinks a strict harmony teacher would have dinged Brahms for having parallel fourths in that progression (the F♯-B moving upwards by half-step in parallel motion to the G-C), but the heart wants what the heart wants, so minor (no pun intended) transgressions are forgiven.

My apologies for dwelling on this technical analysis, but this is that special moment for me that carries a deeply personal, secret meaning and James Kreger communicates it to me with all the sorrow, regret, and heartache I hear in it. His is an intensely emotional performance of the sonata, one that is probing, penetrating, and profound. Kreger’s piano partner this time is Robert Preston, and he shares the cellist’s vision of the work. The two players breathe the letter and spirit of the music as one. The first-movement exposition repeat is taken, and the sound of this streaming audio only YouTube clip is quite remarkable. It has a presence equal to or better than many physical discs and downloads.

As you can see from the above headnote, the movements of the sonata are contained in three separate YouTube clips. It’s a minor inconvenience, but no more so than what we all once experienced having to turn LPs over on our turntables. Modern technology that enables hours’ worth of music to be stored on a chip smaller than a fingernail has spoiled us. Anyway, Kreger and Preston’s performance of Brahms’s E-Minor Cello Sonata is too good to allow such inconsequential considerations to deter you from hearing it; and remember, as long as you have a computer and access to the Internet, it’s free. —Jerry Dubins