Russian Cello Sonatas (CD review)

Rachmaninov: Sonata in G minor, Op. 19; Vocalise, Op. 34/14; Prokofiev: Sonata in C, Op. 119. Hee-Young Lim, cello; Nathalia Milstein, piano. Sony Classical S807497C (80358118497).

By Karl W. Nehring

One of the fascinating features of classical music is how international it has become. Although long dominated by Europeans, Western classical music has spread around the globe in terms of both composers and performers. As evidence of that internationalization, what we have here is a recording of music by a pair of Russian composers performed by a Korean cellist who trained in the USA, Germany, and France (and is now a Professor of Cello at the Beijing Central Conservatory) and a French pianist who trained in Switzerland and Germany. Adding to the international flair of this release, the liner booklet (itself printed in Korea, the recording sessions having taken place in Germany) displays the first Sony recording by Ms. Lim -- French cello concertos in conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra led by an American conductor who was born in Japan and is music director of the Mexico City Philharmonic. "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of music…"

I don't think I would be offending anyone by remarking that Russian music tends to be colorful and imbued with passion. Examples that quickly spring to mind are the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the tone poems of Rismsky-Korsoakov, and the ballets of Stravinsky. Or perhaps we might think of Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 or Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. These examples are all large-scale symphonic efforts, but what we have here in this recording are much smaller-scale compositions that are nonetheless colorful and passionate.

The cello is an instrument with great expressive potential, as is, of course, the piano (technically a percussion instrument but capable of profoundly lyrical expression), and both Rachmaninov and Prokofiev are true masters of emotion in music. Cellist Hee-Young Lim (b. 1987) says of the program she has chosen for this recording, "I love how each one of these pieces shows a sense of resilience and unapologetically commits to owning this."

The emotional dimension of this repertoire is evident from the opening measures of the Cello Sonata in g minor by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), which the composer wrote in 1901 after successfully recovering from the creative depression he had suffered in the wake of the unsuccessful debut of his Piano Concerto No. 1. That same year, he also completed his most popular work, the Piano Concerto No. 2. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that a striking characteristic of the sonata is the prominence given to the piano. Lim recalls that her interest in the piece "came late in my studies because I always thought that, despite the beautiful melodies, it was the 'Fifth Piano Concerto' accompanied by the cello. I wished we had as many notes as the piano had! However, I now truly enjoy playing this sonata, which represents great chamber music by Rachmaninov."

Hee-Young Lim and Nathalia Milstein
Indeed, pianist Nathalia Milstein (b. 1995) from the outset plays much more than a mere supporting role. The opening is slow but dramatic, the piano playing expressive, soon joined by the cello with a truly singing quality. I scrawled in my listening notes for this first movement "piano plays lots of notes… singing quality to cello… really does sound at times like a piano concerto… but that's OK, beautiful music for both players." The second movement has a more agitated mood, often underpinned by a galloping sound from the piano. The cello sounds calmer, but overall there is still a sense of motion. A lyrical interlude led by the cello is followed by a climax about four minutes in. The music then reverts to the agitated feeling of the opening, with the piano taking much of the lead and the cello singing along. As you might expect, the following third movement opens more softly and reflectively, with the piano in the lead, followed by the cello echoing the same melody. As the movement continues, there is more soloing by the piano. Toward the end of this short movement, there is an intense passage with both instruments singing away, but then the intensity diminishes as the movement ends quietly, the last note on the cello lingering in the air. The fourth and final movement parallels the opening movement in its scope and intensity. Once again, the piano is assigned a prominent role while the cello plays lyrically and lovingly. The overall impression made by this sonata can be characterized as sounding something like a piano concerto for reduced forces, or better yet, just simply acknowledge it as a truly grand sonata for cello and piano. In any event, it is a beautifully dramatic composition that is played for all it is worth by these two remarkable musicians.

Although the Cello Sonata in C of 1948 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1963) is smaller in scale than the Rachmaninov (on this recording, the former's three movements are timed at 11:30, 5:03, and 8:47  while the latter's four movements are timed at 13:03, 6:40, 6:05, and 11:11), it packs no less a musical and emotional wallop. Cellist Lim remarks of this sonata that "it has greater range for the cello [compared to the Rachmaninov], with more technical variety. I like the fact that it has a lot of fantasy, like a fairy tale. I feel I'm telling a story."

The opening movement begins with the cello playing in its lower registers, soon joined by the piano, this time playing more percussively than in the Rachmaninov. Moving on, the cello introduces a different theme in a higher register, followed by some plucking accompaniment as the piano takes over the lead for a spell. At about four minutes in, there is a more agitated new melody, followed by some more lyrical lines. As the movement comes to its close, the cello engages in some highly energetic "fiddling," but the movement ends quietly. The second movement at times seems to have the rhythmic feel of a children's song, but its most striking feature -- at least to these ears -- is the incorporation of a musical phrase that sounds for all the world as though Prokofiev lifted it from the American minstrel song, "Dixie." Although it does not play a major role in the movement, to hear a musical phrase from "Dixie" in the midst of a Russian cello sonata is quite an ear-opening experience. The third and final movement begins with plenty of gusto, fast and driving, with plenty of energy from both players. There is a transition to a slower melody about halfway through, but then it is back to increased energy as the sonata heads down the home stretch. Brava! This is a truly engaging piece of music that I wish I had discovered long ago.

The final piece is one that I – and doubtless many other music lovers -- did in fact discover many years ago (although probably not in this particular arrangement), Rachmaninov's Vocalise, originally scored for soprano and orchestra.  Lim writes of this piece, "given that it's a song without words, it's an ideal piece for cello, as the cello is so similar to the human voice. I feel somehow deeply linked to this song, I love its emotional intimacy and passion." To their great credit, Lim and Milstein let Rachmaniov's music speak for itself. There is no sense of exaggerated emotionalism or expressive overload in their playing. This music is expressive as written and does not need extra secret sauce to be poured on by the performers. The end result of their relatively straightforward but nonetheless committed approach is enjoyable and moving. Although this arrangement makes me realize that I would prefer to hear the orchestral version instead (there is a sonically resplendent version sung by Syliva McNair with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on a vintage Telarc CD that also includes a terrific rendition of his Symphony No. 2), that by no means diminishes the pleasure to be found in this scaled-down version, which also sings straight from and to the heart.

For chamber music fans who love melody and emotional depth, I highly recommend this release. And for those just discovering classical music who have not yet delved into the chamber music repertoire, this well-produced and well-engineered release would make an excellent introduction.


To listen to an excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa