Yo-Yo Ma, cello. Emanuel Ax, piano.
As a young man, Strauss tried to find his way through sonata form. He never really mastered it, in the sense of Brahms or even Mendelssohn.
His reawakening of interest in classical forms in his old age change those forms into very interesting and substantial hybrids, but not really classical. To some extent, it seems a problem of his time-sense of contrast (especially modulation) moving much more quickly than that demanded by the sonata. If we contrast Strauss' sonata with either cello sonata of Mendelssohn, Strauss' deficiencies immediately stand out. He seems at a loss for second subjects, his development consists mostly of sequences, and he doesn't know how to build to a recapitulation. The Piano Quartet solves most of these problems at an apparent stroke, but it's rarely played. Despite all its faults, the Cello Sonata still wins the affection of cellists (and even pianists: Emanuel Ax's notes to this recording regret that Strauss' mature piano writing is mostly confined to songs). Finally, while one can easily pick out faults, the sonata has considerable panache. The instrumental writing is grateful for both instruments and there are attractive ideas throughout. What Strauss lacks is the experience to know when to sacrifice a good idea to the cogency of the musical argument and how to make the most of his best material.
Slightly bloodless, Ma and Ax (especially Ax) do okay, but they do not cause you to forget the structural problems of the movements. The first movement opens with an arresting herald-trumpet call for the piano. However, the contrasting lyrical subject doesn't measure up and the performers hold back even its due. This reduces the movement to effectively a one-theme pony. The slow movement suffers the same problem. The first thematic group, noble and hymn-like, promises more than Strauss delivers. The second thematic group has very little distinctive about it. Ma and Ax play as if both groups had equal artistic worth, but they fail to convince. The third movement, a combined scherzo and finale, is the strongest and most imaginative, even if it is the most derivatively Mendelssohnian. Its puckish nature seems to finally wake them up.
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