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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.

Album Credits:
Recorded Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music; Oberlin, Ohio on September 10 - 11, 2016.
Producer/Editor: Thomas C. Moore, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.
Engineering/Mastering: Michael Bishop, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.

Executive Producer: Jon Feidner
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo Cello: 1720 Dominic Montagnana
Piano: Steinway Model D


As someone with a natural
Read more 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 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

The first thing you notice about these Brahms performances is cellist Brian Thorntonís warm, viola-like sonority, which boasts seamless uniformity between registers, albeit with occasional coarseness when pushing the low C and G into fortissimo territory. The composerís gnarly keyboard writing poses no problems for pianist Spencer Myer, who is willing and able to abruptly adjust his balances and timbre. Ensemble values reveal no loose ends or splinters, while contrapuntal lines always are followed through to their final destinations.

The musicians fare best in the F major sonata. They grab Brahmsí Allegro vivace directive in the first movement and run away with it without losing control. What is more, the energetic momentum never turns muddy on account of Myerís sparse pedaling. The Adagio affetuoso runs a wide emotional gamut, although the climax builds to a fervent fault, in contrast to the subtler dynamic scaling in both of the Yo-Yo Ma/Emanuel Ax recordings (Sony and RCA).

The Ma/Ax teamís drier, more detached third movements differ from the broader, more massively textured yet no less involving Thornton/Myer, while the latter duo imbues the finale with a more yielding lyrical trajectory than the more buoyant Isserlis/Hough traversal.

The E minor, however, is somewhat less convincing. While the Allegro non troppo couldnít be more direct and lucidly projected, I miss the potential for rhythmic inflection that can better underscore the musicís points of tension and release. The Allegretto quasi menuetto is spotless and well-groomed yet basically foursquare; how much more playful and edgy the music emerges in the hands of Janos Starker and Rudolf Buchbinder. My quibble about Thorntonís lower-string coarseness particularly applies to the Allegroís opening, where Starker and Buchbinder contour the busy counterpoint to gaunter, more varied effect. In sum, more individual versions abound in the catalog, but thereís no questioning these playersí intelligence and musicianship.


Cellist Brian Thornton and pianist Spencer Myer, in recordings made at Clonick Hall, Oberlin, give inspired performances of Brahmsí two Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Opp. 38 and 99. More than that, Thorntonís instrument, a 1720 Dominic Montagnana on loan from Lynn Harrell, is complimented perfectly by Myerís Steinway D, producing as beautiful a sound as Iíve ever heard in these two major works of the literature. From the very opening of Opus 38 in E minor, where the cello melody meanders slowly but with deceptive purpose, we know we are in for enchanted music making.

And we are not disappointed. This brooding melody from a land of dreams, played in the celloís lowest register, is followed later by a sensational outburst from both instruments and a recap of previous themes. This work wears its supple architecture inobstrusively so as not to distract from Brahmsí astonishing inventiveness. Its middle movement, for example, is a melancholy waltz, enclosed by a minuet, in which Brahmsí use of the Phyrgian mode imparts an archaic tone.

The finale is a fully realized fugue, based on Contrapunctus XIII from J.S. Bachís Art of the Fugue, further evidence that Brahms understood the legacy of the past better than any of his other contemporaries. The fugue theme alternates with a graceful cantabile melody played by the cello and agitated figurations in the piano. Solid conviction in the performances of both artists brings out the rugged spontaneity of this movement.

Brahmsí Sonata in F major, Op. 99, written more than 20 years later, could not have been more different than the first in its powerful emotion. Like the Piano Quartet, Op. 60 and the Piano Concerto, Op. 83, it begins with a huge, dramatic sonata form movement, requiring enormous energy from the cellist and very dramatic tremolos from the pianist. It continues with a breathtakingly lyrical slow movement, marked Adagio affetuoso, and a heaven-storming scherzo marked Allegro passionato (and how!)

The finale is a relaxed, laid-back rondo, with only a few dissonant clashes and syncopations to let us know this is still Brahms speaking. As he did in the slow movement, Brahms plays off the home key of F with a more ethereal F-sharp in order to increase the beauty and the harmonic tension. At the final return of the theme, he introduces a pizzicato ďslideĒ in the cellistís left hand, changing the pitch on a single pluck. Thornton and Myer have to be ever vigilant for Brahmsí subtle changes within the line. Exceptional recorded sound (produced and edited by Thomas C. Moore, with engineering and mastering by Michael Bishop) serves both these performances well.

-- Audio Video Club of Atlanta

While the First Sonata leaves me a bit cold, the Second Sonata is far and away my favorite Brahms sonata and probably my favorite cello sonata period. In a way, the two works are mirror images of each other. Sonata No. 1 was the first sonata that Brahms wrote for piano and another instrument. Originally, it was supposed to have four movements just like Sonata No. 2, but somewhere along the line Brahms decided to scrap the slow movement; the piece ended up with three more-or-less fast movements. Some scholars believe that the projected slow movement was not scrapped at all but became the second movement of Sonata No. 2 written more than twenty years later.

The First Sonata begins with a rather lugubrious theme played in the celloís lowest register; in contrast, the Second Sonata starts impetuously, with churning tremolos in the piano, over which the cello rises to its very highest register! The two sonatas end very differently too. Sonata No. 1 concludes with a learned fugue that for me is a musical wet blanket, while Sonata No. 2 ends in a rondo that is all Viennese gamütlichkeit. Well, maybe not all: there is a darkly passionate minor-key episode along the way.

In fact, the First Sonata betrays that pedantic quality Brahms sometimes indulged in to his detriment. The fugal finale is a tribute to the composerís love of pre-Classical music, especially Bach, while the second movement minuet is a tribute to the Classical masters Brahms mostly modeled his music on. A charmer, itís one of the best things about the sonata, a perfect counterbalance to the heavy weather found in the first and last movements.

Ah, but the Second Sonata has so many good things in it! That brightly buoyant first movement is followed by one of Brahmsís most deeply felt slow movements, in which the cello memorably intones the main theme in pizzicati, a gesture that returns just as memorably in the finale. At the very end of the movement, the cellist employs a ďĎpizzicato slide,í where the left hand changes the pitch on a single pluck of the stringĒ (Peter Laki). Itís a novel and striking effect, especially in a movement thatís as charmingly insouciant as Brahms can manage to be.

In contrast, the third movement scherzo is a driven affair in F minor. Brian Thornton and Spencer Myer choose a perfect tempo here and deliver the goods in a performance that is sheer élan. For comparison, I listened to an oldie but goodie, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in an RCA Red Seal recording made way back in 1985. As with almost every other movement in both works, Ma and Ax are slower than Thornton and Myer, in this movement with especially negative results. So itís ironic that in the Allegro molto finale of the Second Sonata, Ax and Ma are over twenty seconds faster and catch the exuberance of the music more effectively. I think the one miscalculation in Thornton and Myerís interpretation is that they begin the rondoís A theme too slowly and recessively, though they do manage to right themselves quickly enough. After that disappointing start, the movement is mostly a success.

I find their performance of the First Sonata both well played and idiomatic, as fine a one as I can remember hearing. And except for my quibble with the players over their interpretive choice in the finale of the Second Sonata, overall, this is an excellent performance as well. Brian Thornton is a forceful presence throughout, playing with the slightly throaty tone quality that I recall in the playing of his teacher, Lynn Harrell. By contrast, Yo-Yo Maís tone is more rounded and mellifluous. And Maís partner, Emanuel Ax, provides what Iíd call a more ďcushionedĒ accompaniment than Spencer Myer, whose playing is more forthright and impactful, less inclined to rhythmic license. Iím glad to know both performances and can recommend Thornton and Spencer to all who like their Brahms with a little less sentiment, a bit more drive. Fine sound from Steinway & Sons as well, thanks to engineer Michael Bishop.

-- Audiophile Audition

These are consistently deliberate interpretations of Brahmsís two cello sonatas, not only in terms of tempo but in their overall character. The First Sonata begins in a ruminative mood thatís sustained even where other performers allow the adrenaline to surge. Listen at 1'00", for example, and note how Thornton and Myer hold back, as if longingly clinging to a memory; then turn to Isserlis and Hough (Hyperion), who find breathless passion in the same passage. Thornton and Myer are heartfelt, certainly, yet thereís sometimes a distinct lack of expressive detail in their playing. That long note that lies at the crest of the movementís main motif, for example, can impart so much ache, as Johannes Moser (Hänssler) so movingly demonstrates, yet here itís subdued into a more generalised melancholy.

At times, Thornton and Myerís deliberateness can feel ponderous, as in the First Sonataís Allegretto quasi menuetto with its lead-footed accents on the downbeats. In the third movement of the Second Sonata, on the other hand, their relatively measured tempo and meticulous rhythmic articulation hint at something dark and almost sinisteróa marvellous effect and one that suggests a surprisingly close kinship with the Scherzo of the Piano Quintet.

Both Thornton and Myer are admirably conscientious of Brahmsís dynamic markingsódespite some overlooked pianissimos in the finale of the Second Sonataóand the performances are perhaps most convincing in moments of quiet introspection. Thorntonís tone is occasionally strained in high-lying passages and there are a few moments of spotty intonation. The recording provides a concert-hall perspective, with plenty of air around the instruments. There is some sacrifice in clarity as a result but one could argue that the slightly hazy sound fits the interpretationsí pensive character.

-- Gramophone

These are in some ways my favorites of all cello sonatas. Of course, Brahms is perhaps my favorite composer. He speaks to me imaginatively and with richness of content and balance of instruments.

Of course, since I have played these sonatas many times, I have strong emotional feelings about how they should be played. I find Thorntonís approach very effective in its intensity. I am not entirely happy with his phrasing habits. He is rather unyielding in tempo and has a somewhat unvaried vibrato, yet he makes up for that to some extent with his fine dynamic balance with Myerís beautiful tone quality.

These are not my favorite interpretations, but they have plenty of virtues and are recorded with notable clarity.

-- American Record Guide Read less