Debut – Richard Harwood & Christoph Berner

0 of 5 stars

Beethoven
Sonata in A for Piano and Cello, Op.69
Glazunov
Chant du menéstrel, Op.71
Anton Rubinstein
Mélodie in F [arr. Popper]
Offenbach
Les Larmes de Jacqueline (Elégie) [arr. W. Thomas-Mifune]
Popper
Elfentanz, Op.39
Chopin
Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.65

Richard Harwood (cello) & Christoph Berner (piano)

Recorded 25-28 February 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: EMI DEBUT 3 59645 2
Duration: 77 minutes

In 2004 Richard Harwood won the biennial Pierre Fournier Award – he has taken other prizes, too – which was judged by a formidably heavyweight panel of cellists including Karine Georgian, Raphael Wallfisch, Ralph Kirshbaum and Moray Welsh. Harwood is obviously a name to watch out for.

Whilst the concept of EMI’s “Debut” series – providing young artists with a musical calling card – is laudable, unless there is good judgement in the choice of programme it can lead to them recording repertoire to which they are less than suited. Of this release’s two main works, Chopin’s Sonata is the least satisfactory part – just as it was in Harwood and Christoph Berner’s Wigmore Hall recital in 2005. There they gave an absolutely spellbinding account of Martinů’s Cello Sonata No.1 – co-incidentally written for Fournier – and it would have done both musicians greater justice had this been included here.

With that caveat out the way, there are many really good things included on this issue. The duo emerges from the Beethoven with flying colours, a performance that would be worth hearing at any price. The pianist Christoph Berner (unaccountably and unacceptably omitted from the front cover and in the booklet biographies) is an excellent Beethoven stylist, crisp and focussed, whilst Harwood’s mellow sound (he plays a notably sweet-toned Rugeri) is particularly ingratiating (both when heard live and as recorded here in the mellow acoustic of Potton Hall). The scherzo has just the right amount of impish wit whilst the brief slow movement draws playing of real inwardness.

There follow four crowd-pleasers – ideal for those with a sweet musical tooth – and including an impassioned account of the Glazunov and a charming one of Anton Rubinstein’s Mélodie in F (very much in the same mould as Elgar’s Salut d’amour). The most substantial is Offenbach’s Les Larmes de Jacqueline followed by Popper’s perennial Elfentanz, which is despatched with insouciance.

My only serious reservation concerns the performance of the Chopin. This is an elusive work and hard to bring off. Its first movement (with exposition repeat) runs here to just over 17 minutes and is given full-on Romantic treatment and emerges sounding like Brahms. There is more light and shade, more quicksilver delicacy, than we are allowed to hear. Partly this is because much is simply too forceful – the second movement scherzo is heavy on its feet. But it is also a question of rubato – the piano’s opening flourish simply does not sound like Chopin. Here the rich acoustic works against the music, thickening the texture.

The remainder of the disc is a joy however, beautifully recorded and elegantly performed, and not everyone will react to the Chopin as I did.

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