Piatigorsky and Rubinstein, great partners for Brahms

April 02, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The two Brahms Sonatas occupy a place in the repertory for cello and piano superior even to the five of Beethoven. Their emotional and dramatic range was unprecedented and remains unequaled. The Brahms sonatas are to the cellist what Mozart's Don Giovanni and Wagner's Wotan are to the baritone -- opportunities to seize center stage from the tyrannical sway of the violin and the tenor.

There has never been a shortage of recordings of these pieces: several new ones make a fine impression, and one that is newly reissued can be warmly welcomed back.

The reissue is the 1966 recording by Piatigorsky and his longtime friend and chamber music partner, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (BMG Classics 09026-62592-2). Age effects string players more than pianists, and Piatigorsky was not a young man when this recording was made. Even if one allows himself to wish that the 63-year-old cellist and the 79-year-old pianist had recorded these pieces a few years earlier, however, these performances remain among the finest on disc. Piatigorsky and Rubinstein combine sweeping grandeur and refinement in a manner that other partnerships simply cannot match.

Piatigorsky approaches these pieces as a great Russian bass-baritone might. It is playing so personal in its inflections that one almost forgets one is listening to an instrument. Rubinstein was a superb Brahms player, and he partners his old friend magnificently. Magnificent also are Rubinstein's 1953 interpretations of five Brahms intermezzi -- particularly one of the lilting C Major from opus 119 -- that fill out the disc.

Playing that approaches Piatigorsky-like grandeur can be heard on a disc (Audiofon CD 72045) from cellist William De Rosa and pianist Li-Jian, which combines Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in F, Richard Strauss' early, Brahms-influenced Sonata in the same key and Schumann's "Adagio and Allegro."

De Rosa, a cellist in his early 30s, was a student of Elaine Schoenfeld and had some lessons as a boy from Piatigorsky before the latter's death in 1976. He was a remarkable prodigy -- he played the Shostakovich First Concerto at 12 and was the youngest competitor in the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition -- and he deserves to be better-known. If his playing has a shortcoming -- and this is said only in comparison to masters such as Piatigorsky and Starker -- it's that he seems currently more concerned with beauty of tone than with the shaping of musical line. He receives a sympathetic and tonally alluring accompaniment from Li-Jian. Cello aficionados will not want to miss this recording.

Nor will they want to miss the Janos Starker's third recording of the Brahms Cello Sonatas (BMG Classics 09026-61562-2) with the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. These performances may not be as fiery as those the younger Starker recorded with Abba Bogin (Period) and Georgy Sebok (Mercury), but the great cellist's phrasing is more elegant than ever, his command of musical flow even more commanding and his musicianship newly infused by a sense of relaxation and an autumnal glow particularly appropriate to Brahms. The distinguished Viennese pianist is the best sonata partner Starker has had since the death of Julius Katchen 30 years ago. The filler is a splendid performance of Schumann's "Adagio and Allegro."

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