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80226 Brahms & Schumann Cello Music played by Clive Greensmith
Brahms and Schumann, Biddulph # 80226-2
One might call this recording 'historically inspired' which is of course a very loose term but nonetheless accurate as the piano, a Bechstein baby grand from 1865 is of the exact same period as Brahms's first cello sonata in e minor. We know from the detailed correspondence that survives from Brahms active concert career that he used many different types of instrument ranging from the early Romantic fortepianos of Beethoven and Schubert to the more powerful and 'songful' instruments developed by makers such as Baumgardten & Heinz, Erard, Streicher, Bechstein and Steinway - those responsible for the tremendous advances in piano technology that came about in the 1850's and 60's. An interesting discovery was that Brahms seems to have admired the smaller grand pianos and was not enamored by the Viennese concert grands. For my Stradivarius cello I opted to use four gut strings, not out of slavish devotion to historical accuracy but because of their more plangent, speaking quality that seemed to blend more successfully with the beautiful mellow voice of the Bechstein. Because the sound of this piano is less massive than those of today, the dynamic balance between both instruments is enhanced, freeing the cellist from his or her usual preoccupation with having to project at all costs. Directly related to this is the challenge of trying to preserve Brahms's original phrase and slur markings, so often a matter of compromise today with string players opting for 'convenience bowings, that give more sound with less effort. I read that old orchestral parts belonging to the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics indicate that many more notes used to be played in one bow than is customary today. With such an emphasis on the slow pulling of the bow, and less reliance on the left hand for expression and nuance, I began to find that this concept fitted perfectly with the tonal characteristics of the Bechstein piano. At higher dynamic levels, for example in the scherzo of Brahms's f major sonata, the piano's sound is unusually bright and clear with a far quicker decay than is to be found on contemporary instruments. The resultant effect is, to my ear, more demonic and colorful. Another very important factor that cannot be forgotten is how liberating an experience this is for the pianist who can play with maximum force and energy, never holding back for the sake of the poor cellist!
The seemingly inexorable tidal flow of early music practice (or historically informed performance) has reached as far as the early twentieth century with reappraisals of every major composer along the way. The impact of 'historical music making' has been immense with period conductors now regularly working with mainstream orchestras and a host of players now experimenting with original instruments with great stylistic flexibility. There was a time when one was either on one side of the fence or the other. Now, I have a sense that the mistrust that perhaps once existed has been replaced by a genuine earnestness to use the huge range of options in interpretation available to us in more truly authentic ways, based on appropriate attitudes of mind and not just a strict adherence to any given set of rules. This is surely good for music and for these cherished masterworks which, in my opinion, have been too often taken for granted.