BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-5. 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” 7 Variations on Mozart’s “Bei manner.” 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein mädchen oder weibchen.” / Pierre Fournier, cel; Friedrich Gulda, pno / Urania WS 121.383
These famous 1959 recordings of Beethoven’s cello-piano pieces, once the property of Deutsche Grammophon but now in the public domain, has previously been reissued by Diaposon d’Or and Regis. They are reincarnated here by Urania, which has done a stupendous job of reviving Toscanini’s old broadcasts with far superior sound to any of the RCA-BMG-Sony releases.
Unlike the Toscanini releases, however, this recording wasn’t in need of any sonic restoration. It sounded great when DGG put it out originally, and it sounds great here. In addition, both the DGG and Diaposon d’Or releases are now out of print, so this would seem to be an ideal choice. Fournier’s cello is recorded better here than on either the 1947 set with pianist Artur Schnabel or, surprisingly, the 1965 remake with Wilhelm Kempff (a pianist I never could stomach, and still can’t…he was too fussy and mannered for me). Fournier, of course, is the star here, his wonderfully manicured cello tone and exciting rhythmic bite and drive informing all of these sonatas with just the right touch, but Gulda is equal to the task. Although his Beethoven playing was never as subtly colored as that of his rivals, it had great clarity, drive, and cleanliness about it that never wavered, providing an excellent backing for the cellist. Indeed, as you go through this set you may ask yourself if any cello-piano duo has played these sonatas this well. Actually, yes: not just Zuill Bailey with Simone Dinnerstein on Telarc, but also Maria Kliegel and Nina Tichman on Naxos, both excellent sets in modern digital sound. What goes around comes around, and although it took several decades for others to catch up to Fournier and Gulda, this is exactly what has happened. Unfortunately, the Kliegel-Tichman duo is available on three CDs instead of two, but quality performances are quality performances.
With that being said, Fournier’s 1947 recordings of the five sonatas are unique, and the reason they’re unique is due to Artur Schnabel. As wonderful as Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein are, there is no pianist on God’s green earth who played Beethoven like Schnabel, and this is a telling factor in this wonderful set. The way Schnabel “leaned into” the notes when he played, almost as if approaching the keyboard on an angle rather than straight-up from the top, produced a rhythmic vitality that goes beyond the surface excitement, great though it is, from Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein. Each note dropped from Schnabel’s fingers like pearls falling off a string, yet they bounced into each other, creating a continuous sound rather than breaking up into little beads as one might expect. Listen, to cite one example, to his upward chromatic run at the six-minute mark in the first movement of the first sonata. It almost sounds as if a ball were placed on the keys and rolled upwards chromatically, so precise is their articulation. To create a metaphor that I don’t think any other critic has noticed, it almost sounds as if Schnabel is playing a xylophone with a sustain pedal. In addition, Schnabel is more keenly sensitive to the soft passages that lie between the bravura ones that the other three pianists.
But alas, the Fournier-Schnabel duo never recorded the three sets of variations, so here the Gulda set is at an advantage. In addition, despite Schnabel’s wonderful playing, Fournier sounds better (mostly due to the improvement in sonics, but also due to miking) in the Gulda set, and in a sense he responds more acutely to Gulda’s playing than he did to Schnabel’s. Perhaps the iconic pianist intimidated him a bit, but I found his playing in the Schnabel set to be musically correct but lacking in both warmth and humor. Gulda acts more as support for the cellist than a leader trying to make him play in a way that was not natural for him. In addition, Fournier admirers will surely want his recordings of the variations, thus they will have to turn to Gulda for them. Moreover, the Fournier-Schnabel set, just the five sonatas, costs a lot more. There’s a version issued on the Classica d’Oro label that’s selling for $27.97 on Amazon, and the only other way you can find them complete is in the EMI boxed set devoted to Fournier, which is even more expensive. A few movements are available for free streaming on YouTube to give you an idea of the high quality of their work together, but only the last three sonatas are available complete. If you’re a paid subscriber to the Naxos Music Library, which I personally recommend, you can find the EMI Fournier set there and stream the whole series, but other than that I’d have to send you back to Fournier-Gulda. So, as Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Here we go again!”
But beware third-party sellers trying to jack up the price on this set. HB Direct is selling it at a “reduced” price of $26.99, but if you go to Urania’s own website, you’ll find that the asking price is €16,47 which translates to just a little over $18 American, which is even cheaper than Regis’ price of $20. Nonetheless, you should also be aware that the Bailey-Dinnerstein set is selling on Amazon for a mere $15.16, so it’s up to you. If you’re a Fournier or a Gulda fan, of course you’ll want this release; it is unique in both artists’ discographies.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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