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Brahms: Cello Sonatas / Brian Thornton, Spencer Myer

Release Date: 06/16/2017
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30081
Composer:  Johannes Brahms Performer:  Brian Thornton ,  Spencer Myer

Brian Thornton, acclaimed cello soloist and distinguished member of the Cleveland Orchestra, collaborates with Steinway Artist Spencer Myer on a fabulous recording of the great Sonatas for Cello and Piano by Johannes Brahms.

R E V I E W S:

As someone with a natural aversion to musical overstatement, my port of entry into the music of Brahms has always been his chamber music ó you get all the emotional intensity, but not so much of the bombast. And his cello sonatas are models of the genre and of what makes Brahms great: the wonderful fugal section at the end of the first sonata, that perfectly blends classical structure with Romantic fire; the heartbreaking adagio section in the second. Cellist Brian Thornton
Read more and pianist Spencer Myer are a match made in heaven, each of them playing with the kind of restrained intensity that is required in order to give this music its purest expression. Recommended to all libraries.

-- CDHotList

Just when you thought there wasnít a living cellist left who hadnít recorded Brahmsís two cello sonatas, here comes Brian Thornton, a cellist new to me, and apparently to the pages of Fanfare, to have his say on these two enduring masterpieces of the cello literature. First, it should be noted that Thornton is not a recent conservatory graduate or a young hopeful just off the international competition circuit. Concertgoers in the Cleveland, Ohio area are likely to recognize Thornton as a familiar face in the cello section of the Cleveland Orchestra, where he holds the William P. Blair III Endowed Chair and is now in his 16th season. Second, Thornton has appeared as a soloist with the orchestra, as well as with orchestras in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. With his special interest in modern music, he has also premiered countless works as a soloist and in chamber ensembles, as well as participating in many Cleveland Orchestra premieres.

To date, the only previous recording by Thornton Iíve come across is an album of works by Lev Aronson, Rachmaninoff, Bruch, Bloch, Patrick Zimmerli, and Yuriy Leonovich, in which Thornton is partnered by Spencer Myer, the same pianist as here in the Brahms sonatas. On the current recording, Thornton is heard playing a 1720 Dominic Montagana cello, generously lent to him by his teacher, Lynn Harrell. There are few places on the globe that prize-winning, in-demand pianist Spencer Myer hasnít been invited to perform. His résumé of appearances in solo recital, in chamber ensembles, and as soloist with orchestras would fill an entire page. Myerís Hamonia Mundi debut album containing works by Busoni, Debussy, Copland, and Kohs so impressed Colin Clarke in 31:4 that he flagged it for Want List consideration.

Every time Iím confronted by a new version of these Brahms sonatas I think to myself how jaded Iíve become hearing them and wonder how any players could possibly have anything to say about them that hasnít been said a thousand times before. Then I put the recording on and all skepticism melts away, as I surrender to those opening bars of the First Sonata, one of the most memorable and arrestingly beautiful openings in all of music. A simple rising figure in the cello outlining an E-Minor triadóE-G-Bófollowed a bar and a half later by its descending mirror imageóB-G-Eóhow Brahmsianósetting the stage for the unfolding of the plot that informs the entire massive first movement.

The performance by Thornton and Myer is one of rapt concentration. Thorntonís tone throbs with the many-splendored passions of love, lust, loss, loneliness, and ache, while Myerís piano rages and comforts. This is partnering in chamber music at its best. Thornton and Myer play as one body, one spirit, and one soul. Myer, as you might have guessed from the album label in the headnote, is a Steinway artist, and his piano resonates in a particularly sympathetic way with Thorntonís cello. The effect is enhanced by the crystal-clear recording which remains transparent even in the most dynamic passages and allows for the smallest details, especially in the low bass registers of both instruments, to register with clarity.

Though the First Sonata has come down to us without a traditional slow movementópre-publication, Brahms removed an intended Adagio heíd written foritóthe rather melancholy Allegretto quasi Menuetto somehow seems to make up for it. Noted musicologist and Brahms biographer Karl Geiringer famously called the movement a ďvalse triste.Ē The fugal finale, of course, dispels much of the earlier feelings of lovelornness that hover over the first two movements, and itís a real test of technique, especially for the cellist, which Thornton aces seemingly without breaking a sweat.

Though a much later work, composed many years after the First Sonata, Brahmsís Second Cello Sonata almost seems to pick up where the First ended. The first movement is one of striding confidence and optimism, bold and at times even defiant. Now a true Adagio movement follows; tempered, perhaps, by the composerís age, it sounds more reflective and nostalgic than it does yearning. Next comes an agitated, highly concentrated scherzo rather in the mold of its chronological companion of 1886, the Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, op. 101. The finale offers but a fairly brief basking under only partially sunny skies. Typical of Brahmsís style at this juncture, jaunty-sounding themes are often subverted by dark undertows in the harmony and cross-currents in the rhythms. Sentences are short and sometimes cut off before theyíve had a chance to complete their thought and/or theyíre adjoined without smooth transitions between them. And endings can be sudden, abrupt, and shockingly brutal. The concluding measures of the Fourth Symphony, another work from this same periodóthe Cello Sonata No. 2 is op. 99, the symphony op. 98óis a case in point.

Thornton and Myer enter into Brahmsís musically complex and emotionally conflicted world undaunted and emerge from it unscathed, leaving us that much more knowing and wiser for their effort and experience. These are truly the best performances of Brahmsís cello sonatas Iíve heard since the last best performances of Brahmsís cello sonatas Iíve heard. Iím not sure I could pick a favorite because I love them all. Highly recommended.

-- Fanfare

Capturing the essence of human emotions, Brahmsís cello sonatas are undeniable gems. Cleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton and pianist Spencer Myer share a beautiful interpretation of the sonatas in their new album Johannes Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano, released on the Steinway & Sons record label. The playing on the album is magnificent, and the balance between the players is beautiful. Thornton captures the contrast between power and intimacy that makes Brahmsís writing so special. Both partners complement each other well, and are meticulous in their ensemble and phrasing.

Sonata No. 1 in e opens with a grumbly melody in the lowest register of the cello, creating a brooding sense of tension. The opening bars expand into a melody that the performers gorgeously restate throughout the movement. The playful Allegretto quasi Menuetto holds an intimate surprise, introducing an unexpectedly tender lyrical line in its development. Thornton and Myer juggle its various moods with the utmost sensitivity, and capture the sprightly, cheerful mood of the concluding Allegro.

The Sonata in F is more extroverted. Brahms was ready to get the party started, and the opening Allegro vivace begins dramatically, the players bringing out the tumultuous emotional outbursts with panache. Their interpretation of the Adagio affetuoso is a heartfelt display of longing, sadness, and anguish. Thornton and Myer play the energetic Allegro passionato vivaciously, and the final movement, with its surprising percussive elements contrasted with sweet lyricism, is a feast for the ears.

Though the CDís packaging puts the cello in the foreground, it should be remembered that Brahms ó himself a pianist ó originally titled the pieces ďSonata for Piano and Cello.Ē In these magnificent performances, both instruments are of equal importance. The album is highly enjoyable, showcasing two artists of the highest level.

-- Cleveland Classical
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