Chopin & Saint-Saens: Cello Sonatas


Two works from very different composers: Chopin’s works for cello were few and far between, but these two straddle his compositional life: the Introduction and Polonaise was written in 1829 when he was just 19, and the cello sonata in (1845-6) is his last work published during his lifetime (all latter works with opus numbers being published posthumously, against his wishes). In contrast, Saint-Saëns published a great many works for the cello (as well as works in almost every genre of the classical canon), with the Cello Sonata No.2 composed during his travels in Biskra, Algeria.

Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood are performers who have proven themselves in both concert and recordings such as these to be formidable and enthralling interpreters of the classical canon. 
This release follows their previous duo disc of Rachmaninov and Grieg cello sonatas (SIGCD172): " … the musical give-and-take of these players is excellent: they seize upon the music with enthusiasm, energy and sensitivity – one can almost sense that they are keen to show us just how fine this music is … This CD can certainly be strongly recommended. It is good to see these young artists taking up these works with such conspicuous success."
International Record Review

What people are saying

 "Jamie Walton’s mature cello timbre and perceptiveness in matters of interpretation and winningly applied to this coupling of two 19th-century sonatas … Finely honed stylistic judgment here goes hand in hand with re-creative panache."

The Daily Telegraph
"There’s a combination of youthful energy and well-seasoned musicality that Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood thrive on here and it’s a real partnership … Fine playing"
BBC Radio 3 CD Review
"Jamie Walton’s new coupling of Saint-Saens’ Second Cello Sonata and Chopin’s only sonata for the instrument restores faith in a too often maligned composer."
New Zealand Herald

Jamie Walton cello

Daniel Grimwood piano

Release date:25th Apr 2011
Order code:SIGCD252
Barcode: 635212025222

Cellists and pianists don’t often ‘marry’, musically speaking, but the ongoing partnership of Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood now extends to three CDs on Signum Classics and several more on Somm. Both are fairly young musicians and both have prominent careers away from each other. Grimwood, for example, is an advocate of performances on early pianos, and won kudos for his recent recording of Liszt’s Anniees de pelerinage. Walton has recorded concertos by Saint-Saens, Shostakovich, (William) Walton and others for several labels. The nice thing – one of several nice things, actually – about the performances on the present CD is that one senses that the performers truly are in dialogue with each other . (Another nice thing is the plush recording quality – not as clear as on other discs, perhaps, but the auditory equivalent of caramel nevertheless!) Together, they evidently have discussed their repertory with great thoroughness. One might quip that this is ‘unison playing’ taken to new heights!

The one name that must immediately come to mind, in dealing with a programme such as this one, is that of Mstislav Rostropovich. The booklet notes acknowledge this and remind us that, although Rostropovich became associated with Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, it was composed for Viktor Kubatsky, another cellist. (The annotator drily writes, ‘the fact that the Shostakovich sonata was not written for [Rostropovich] can be put down to the cellist being a boy of seven at the time of composition’.) This sonata was composed in 1934, just before the composer started to run foul of the Soviet government. lt is not as flippant or experimental as some of Shostakovich’s music could be during this period. In fact, the sonata opens with an almost Romantic warmth, and when humour appears, it can be odd , but it is not really grotesque. Shostakovich recorded it with cellist Daniel Shafran, a personality-filled reading not to be missed, but of course not a patch on the present one in terms of recording quality. Walton’s tone is much more baritone-like than Shafran’s, and he and Grimwood adopt a smoother approach to the score without turning it into Rachmaninov, for example. In the slow movement, they are almost two minutes faster than Shafran and Shostakovich. A recent alternative, Alexander Chaushia, and Yevgeny Sudbin, is more emotive, even excitable, and Chausian ‘sbuzzy sound is very different from Walton’s smoothness.

Britten composed his Cello Sonata soon after meeting Rostropovich in 1960 and they recorded it not long after . (The three suites and the Cello Symphony came later.) This sonata seems to express Britten’s delight not only over Rostropovich’ s artistry but also over his friendship with the cellist, a friendship whose development was not impeded by the language barrier. (Signum’s annotator alludes to the fractured ‘Aldeburgh Deutsch’ they spoke witlh each other.) One can hardly put aside the ‘creators’ recording’ listed above among the comparison discs; Rostropovich and Britton are, cliched as it is to say so, in a class of their own here. Rostropovich ‘s playing often sounds like human speech. Again , Walton and Grimwood arc far more introspective, and if Walton doesn’t play with the character of Rostropovich, the beauty of his sound offers its own rewards. If you love this work, Walton and Grimwood are an actual alternative, not just an imitation of the original performers.

Prokofiev ‘s sonata is a late work, dating from 1949. It is bruised by the composer ‘s ill -treatment at the hands of his homeland, although one also hears the composer stoically trying to shrug it all off. (I can ‘t quite agree with the annotator’s comment that ‘the whole effect is satisfying and positive, hardly bereft of struggle, but up-beat rather than downcast’.) Well , in any event, one couldn ‘t mistake this for the work of any other composer . Walton’s sound is even fatter than Yo-Yo Ma’ s on Sony, and he and Grimwood trot through the first movement more than two minutes faster than Ma and Emanuel Ax . lt strikes me, on the basis of this recording, that Walton and Grimwood are the performers to go to if you want to hear really dark and gorgeous sounds. Hearing them is a little like (speaking from experience!) hearing Rcnata Tebaldi, after having grown up on a steady diet of Maria Callas.

International Record Review, Raymond S. Tuttle

 The cello and piano duo of Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood have followed up their Grieg and Rachmaninov recording with another couple of major Romantic cello sonatas. This disc includes the Chopin Cello Sonata and a much less well known work, the second Sonata by Saint-Saëns. The early Chopin Introduction and Polonaise brillante finishes the collection. This program, which combines standard works with those less well-known, should encourage listeners to give repertoire such as the Saint-Saëns sonata a hearing.

Another distinctive aspect about this disc is the piano. The liner-notes mention Daniel Grimwood’s interest in early pianos; he has given performances on an 1840 and an 1851 Erard. No make of piano is specified in the liner-notes, but the instrument used on this recording has a bell-like treble that lacks the fullness of a modern grand. This has advantages in terms of improving the balance with the cello, but the smaller sound will be problematic for some.
The Cello Sonata no. 2 by Saint-Saëns is a substantial work, which, like the Chopin Sonata, is in four movements. I didn’t take to this sonata very much at first, but found that I liked it more on a second hearing. With occasional echoes of the Mendelssohn and Beethoven cello sonatas, it lacks a really distinctive voice, and there is some rather empty note-spinning in the finale. However, the work certainly displays Saint-Saëns’ customary fluency and craftsmanship. The first movement has an imposing Maestoso, largamente opening that is reminiscent of a French overture; this is followed by a Tranquillo section that Walton plays with a fine legato. The second movement is a scherzo with variations, with rather Beethovenian polyphonic episodes; Grimwood plays the syncopated figures clearly. The third movement begins in a rather reserved way, leading to a melodic episode with rather modern-sounding harmonies. The finale begins with a fugue, which gives way to a minor key episode dominated by a triplet figure. The writing for both instruments is particularly virtuosic in this movement. Walton and Grimwood play this work in an appropriately grand manner; Walton gets a beautifully full tone from his 1712 Guarneri cello.
The Chopin Cello Sonata is unmistakably a masterpiece of the Romantic cello repertoire. Chopin laboured over this piece for almost two years, and it is his final opus number. In spite of his care the work has unresolved structural problems, the first movement being as long as the remaining movements put together. On the other hand the emotional content is much richer than in the Saint-Saëns sonata. As a genuine duo sonata, in which each part is of equal importance, the work offers plenty of opportunities for a talented duo such as Walton and Grimwood to “play off” each other.
The first movement begins in a melancholy, rather troubled mood. Walton and Grimwood observe the Allegro moderato marking, and their deliberate approach gradually ratchets up the tension. The duo seem to be feeling their way into this movement at times; this creates a sense of genuine engagement as the musical argument gradually takes hold. Walton’s double-stopping is very smooth; the piano struggles to make a crescendo in the climactic passages where it accompanies the cello’s ascending scales. The Scherzo draws subtly varied bowing from Walton, from the staccato opening to the legato Trio; he plays this beautiful but exposed melody with immaculate intonation. The slow movement is taken at a true Largo, and the long melody draws more sensitive playing from the duo. The Finale is one of Chopin’s equestrian movements, like that of the Third Piano Sonata. The duo again observes Chopin’s Allegro non troppo grazioso marking, giving the music time to breathe. Walton’s double-stopping impresses here also, and his upper register sounds very secure; the interplay between him and Grimwood is lively and responsive to every nuance. The Introduction and Polonaise brillante is done with a lively prancing rhythm, and the melodic writing for cello and the filigree piano part are each played in fine spirit. The recorded sound and balance are very good.
The comparison in the sonata is with the 1981 recording with Mstislav Rostropovich and Martha Argerich on Deutsche Grammophon. It seems incredible that a thirty year old recording should still be the benchmark for this work, but it received the top recommendation in a recent BBC Building a Library program. This is a fabulous performance; Rostropovich and Argerich’s interplay has wonderful freedom, and they really strike sparks from each other. One only has to listen to Rostropovich’s huge tone and unaffected lyricism in the Trio to realise that this is a recording unlikely to be bettered. Deutsche Grammophon’s ADD sound is also excellent. This recording is only available in a 17 CD Chopin set (DG 477 8445). However, Walton and Grimwood’s account stands up well; Walton’s sound approaches Rostropovich’s in its fullness, and his partnership with Grimwood is a true meeting of minds. Argerich is playing what sounds like a modern grand, which allows her greater volume at the climaxes than Grimwood’s instrument affords him. For those who are dubious about early piano sound this is really the only reservation.

Musicweb International, Guy Aron

 Saint-Saens’s magnificent Second Cello Sonata is now well-served on disc, but its appearances on stage are still too rare. Jamie Walton’s sound in this excellent recording is open and luminous. Daniel Grimwood is more than a match for his extravagant part: after a pleasingly bold opening Maestoso, the Scherzo explodes into life with a thrilling motoric rumble, powered by this mercurial pianist. There’s plenty of Mendelssohnian magic here in both the lazily eloquent and fleet-footed variations, and an infectious sense of enjoyment. Walton is suave and dreamy in the epic Romanza, but curiously detached. Steven Isserlis (with Pascal Devoyon, RCA) finds a certain depth and piquancy here, phrasing in long lines that always have energy and direction. Walton, by contrast, floats melodies, creating a sense of stasis. The final Allegro is similarly nonchalant, but too often lacks impetus. Where Walton explores, Isserlis finds more urgency and bite.

Their fine performance of Chopin’s great Sonata clears its technical hurdles with ease. But ease isn’t necessarily what this Sonata is about: we need to feel apprehensive, swept up in a tumult, and then suddenly dropped into a haven where time stands still, as we do in Martha Argerich’s performances – with Mstislav Rostropovich (Decca) and Mischa Maisky (DG). There is insufficient contrast here between episodes. The Scherzo is sufficiently fast, bur the cello lacks a gruff edge. A Largo of radiant tenderness is, rightly, the emotional heart of the Sonata. They manage to keep up momentum in the difficult last movement, giving stylish shape to the material. One feels that Walton, a player of huge promise, could occasionally push his musicianship harder, out of his comfort zone.

Gramophone, Helen Wallace

 Saint-Saens’s Second Cello Sonata is an extraordinary combination of Baroque rhetoric and high Romanticism, written, not without struggle, in 1905. Formally and musically, he thwarts our expectations at every turn, be it in the edgily rhetorical Maestoso, largamente or the scherzo-with-variations second movement. At its heart lies Bach (the very opening has the air of an updated Solo Cello Suite before yielding to a theme of the kind of limpid simplicity that only JSB could create). Jamie Walton is alive to the twists and turns of Saint-Saens’s imagination and brings to the sonata a warm, rich sound that is initially very persuasive, ably supported by Daniel Grimwood, who surmounts the considerable challenges of the piano-writing with ease and musicality. But there is more to be wrung from this piece in terms of colour, as Steven Isserlis and Pascal Devoyon so compellingly demonstrate in their RCA reading.

For success in Chopin’s Cello Sonata you need not only a first-rate cellist but, perhaps even more crucially, a pianist utterly at one with his idiom. The mazurka-infused Scherzo is a good litmus test, demanding that the pianist switches from the forthright to the ethereal while negotiating handfuls of notes at speed. So while Pierre Fournier is compelling in his own right, his pianist Jean Fonda is too backwardly miked and not quite dextrous enough. Grimwood is an altogether more convincing foil for Walton; but then you turn to Argerich with Rostropovich and all comparisons are blown out of the water. Her version with Maisky, on the other hand, pushes things too far, losing sight of Chopin’s innate classicism in the process. That balance is better achieved in the Gerhardt/Osborne reading and indeed on this new recording. But again it’s colour that seems in slightly short supply here, with Walton relying perhaps too much on the inherently beautiful sound he makes, which sometimes softens the effect of some of Chopin’s more startling harmonic twists. And in the delightfully frothy Introduction and Polonaise, though Walton and Grimwood are unfailingly musical, they don’t electrify in the manner of Rostropovich and Argerich.

Gramophone, Harriet Smith

 Camille Saint-Saens was not perhaps his own best advocate for posterity when he once claimed to write music as easily as apples fall from a tree.

A younger generation must have felt goaded by such a provocative statement, especially from a composer whose music, as late as 1920, was content to till the melodic and harmonic fields that had served him so well for 60-odd years.
Yet there is more to Saint-Saens than his Organ Symphony and Dalila’s scene- stealing aria. What of the whirling opium trip in his song Tournoiement or the sinuous dance that launches his Second Piano Trio, with a soupcon of samba worthy of Milhaud?
Jamie Walton’s new coupling of Saint-Saens’ Second Cello Sonata and Chopin’s only sonata for the instrument, restores faith in a too often maligned composer.
While Walton and pianist Daniel Grimwood approach both works with an affection and scrupulousness that almost make Chopin’s opening Allegro hang together, one senses Saint-Saens is their favourite.
Perhaps there is a hint of curmudgeonly bluster to set off Saint-Saens’ Sonata but, in between this, comes the most bewitching and Gallic calm.
The scherzo may steal a glance back at Mendelssohn but the colours are a little darker. Walton and Grimwood dash through the pizzicato and arpeggios of its fourth variation, and dispense the contrapuntal sallies of the sixth with just the right arch of the eyebrow.
The easy counterpoint of Saint-Saens’ Finale might have seemed arid four or five decades ago. Now, for a post-minimalist generation, its clear, pristine palette seems almost modern.

New Zealand Herald, William Dart

 This impressive release is cellist Jamie Walton’s sixth for Signum Classics and his second collaboration on this label with his regular recital partner, pianist Daniel Grimwood. They have also recorded sonatas by Brahms, Strauss and Thuille on JCL Records and, like their Signum accounts of cello sonatas by Rachmaninov and Grieg, these performances have been enthusiastically welcomed in these pages and elsewhere. This latest offering raised high expectations which were amply met. The works chosen here suit this duo both temperamentally and stylistically: these are strongly argued and musically sophisticated readings which demand serious and attentive listening.

Chopin’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 (or at least its final three movements) proved to be the last music the composer ever played in public, when on February 13th, 1848 he collaborated with its dedicatee, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, in the work’s Paris premiere. By then, Chopin was exceedingly frail and, as the conductor Charles Halle found, ‘hardly able to move and bent like a half-opened penknife … he sat down at the piano, and as he warmed to his work, his body gradually resumed its normal position, his spirit having mastered the flesh’. The Cello Sonata was several years in the making and was the subject of much revision and of affectation and undue sentimentality. This is in part achieved by Walton’s very sparing use of vibrato and avoidance of rhetorical posturing, where placement of a dramatic portamento or an agogic accent might seem inviting. In addition, tempo relationships have been shrewdly calculated in advance, so that the second thematic group is heard to be in direct metrical association to the first and is carefully linked also to the development section, where the piano’s role becomes increasingly important. The three remaining movements are each a third as long as the first, but these players have such a firm grasp of the Sonata’s overall architecture that the final outcome is assured and inevitable.
Walton has a first-rate collaborator in Grimwood, supportive, flexible and fully alert to every dynamic subtlety, as can be heard in the second movement’s flighty variations. This excellent reading, at once noble and incisive, yet passionate and thought-provoking, too, will satisfy if you prefer a more grounded approach to the piece, in many senses the antithesis of the second of Truls Merk’s versions, recorded in 2006 with Kathryn Stott on Virgin Classics. Theirs is an intensely poetic account, less urgent perhaps than Walton’s and Grimwood’s but darker in tone and with a more valedictory feel. The principal shortcoming is that Virgin’s recording, made in the Old Church of Frederikstad, Norway, is very closely focused and the cellist’s every intake of breath is audible. The early C major Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 is again admirably played, but with the Polonaise itself not taken so fast as to muddy the piano’s tricky figurations. This is the familiar edition edited by Leonard Rose, incidentally, and not the more elaborate and virtuosic version prepared by Feuermann, which is infrequently recorded.
The performance of Saint-Saens’s Sonata No. 2 is certainly no less compelling, and it is good to find this unjustly neglected work taken up with such evident commitment and assurance by these artists, who play it with drive, insight and urgency. In contrast with the 2009 Chandos disc featuring both sonatas and several occasional pieces by Saint-Saëns, played by Christian Poltéra, again accompanied by Stott, this newcomer is notable above all for its more dramatic approach and particularly effective characterization of the variation second movement. Chandos’s sound, however, is more analytical and detailed, serving the cello’s middle range more effectively than does the more distantly focused Signum recording, made in the Wyastone Leys Concert Hall in Monmouthsire. Besides the self-aggrandizing biographical notes about the cellist himself, which occupy three pages of the booklet, the uncredited music notes are adequate if not exactly inspiring, but this is in all other respects a valuable addition to the current catalogue. Recommended.

International Record Review, Michael Jameson

Jamie Walton?s mature cello timbre and perceptiveness in matters of interpretation and winningly applied to this coupling of two 19th-century sonatas. His musical partnership with Daniel Grimwood brings special immediacy and finesse to these performances, in which Saint-Säens Second Sonata asserts both lyrical sweep and dramatic tension, the more familiar Chopin Sonata sounding fresh, supple of phrasing and subtle in expressive nuance. Finely honed stylistic judgment here goes hand in hand with re-creative panache.



The Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris

 “Well thanks to last year’s Chopin anniversary, there have been more new recordings of Chopin’s Cello Sonata around than normal and despite the committed advocacy of a number of fine cellists, it’s still not a work I find myself getting too excited about. Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood’s new recording makes as good a case for Chopin’s Sonata as many but to get to it you have to listen to a work that to my ears at least is musically far more rewarding – the F Major Sonata by Saint-Saens, which like the Chopin has Scherzo variations as it’s second movement and a deliciously spiky start from Grimwood’s piano.”

“…There’s a combination of youthful energy and well-seasoned musicality that Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood thrive on here and it’s a real partnership as I hope you heard from the exchanges in that Scherzo. After which, the rippling delicacy of the piano and lyrical beauty of the vocal cello part in the slow movement are really sensitively handled. Fine playing, and if you’re fonder of the Chopin Sonata than I am, and I’ve tried, honest, then their performance of it will be a serious bonus. I’m just glad that the Saint-Saens makes it so worthwhile. That’s a new release from Signum Classics.”

BBC Radio 3 CD Review, Andrew McGregor

 Chopin and Saint-Saëns don’t seem like a natural pairing, but the stylistic similarities between the two sonatas presented here is startling. Both are the work of composers nearing the ends of their careers (although Chopin wasn’t exactly old) and demonstrate the benefits of a lifetime’s experience wrestling with generic forms. The sonatas are both grand affairs, each is in four movements, and every movement is filled with long, expansive melodies that sit well with the cello’s declamatory yet expressive sound. For Romanza third movement of the Saint-Saens is a particular treat. The movement is a long, winding theme and variations, in which all thoughts of neat proportion or musical progression are suspended, allowing the cello to just sing for a full nine minutes.

The Chopin is a more famous work, so much so that it gets top billing on the cover, despite appearing second on the programme. It always surprises me that Chopin was able to keep the focus on the cello throughout the work and keep the piano in the background. In fact, both he and Saint-Saëns manage this by increasing the note density and dynamics of the cello part rather than reducing the piano’s contribution. But despite its unusual (for him) instrumentation, this is classic Chopin, and deserves a place up there with the greatest of his piano works.
Jamie Walton is an interesting cellist. His style is clean, with hardly any appreciable vibrato or portamento. I’m a big fan of this sort of playing, and to find this aesthetic discipline being applied to the most Romantic of Romantic repertoire is little short of a miracle. Just listen to the clean declamation on the high phrases in the outer movements of the Chopin, that’s really elegant and all the better for avoiding the big swoops between the notes that so many other cellists would apply automatically here. I also like Walton’s low register, which is rich, deep and satisfying.
Daniel Grimwood holds back on the dynamics with his accompaniment, more so perhaps than is necessary. Even so, he is clearly enjoying every minute, and even though his contribution to the Chopin is strictly accompaniment, it is also piano music by Chopin, and he makes the most of the deeply idiomatic writing. I’ve reservations about the recording quality. The sessions took place at the Wyastone Concert Hall at the Nimbus Estate on the Welsh borders. The hall is quite resonant, especially given that its primary use is as a recording venue, but the results are usually more even than here. The microphones have been positioned some distance from the performers, perhaps to make the most of the acoustic, but both of them, and the cello in particular, sound frustratingly distant. The dynamic range of the players is wide, but is also exaggerated by the recording, so avoid the temptation to turn up the quieter passages because you’ll get a shock at the next fortissimo.
But those reservations apart, this is an enjoyable disc. According to the liner note bio, Jamie Walton is "becoming increasingly renowned for his purity of tone", a description I would happily endorse. I notice he has a number of other recordings out on the Signum label, mostly of 19th century repertoire. I’d imagine that Greig and Rachmaninov would benefit just as much as Chopin and Saëns from this focussed, disciplined approach. I’d love to hear what he does with Bach as well., Gavin Dixon

  1. Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op.123: I. Maestoso, largamente – Tranquillo – Camille Saint-Sa?ns – 9.41
  2. Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op.123: II. Scherzo con variazioni: Allegro animato – Camille Saint-Sa?ns – 8.05
  3. Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op.123: III. Romanza: Poco adagio – Camille Saint-Sa?ns – 8.57
  4. Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op.123: IV. Allegro non troppo grazioso – Camille Saint-Sa?ns – 6.10
  5. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65: I. Allegro moderato – Fr?d?ric Chopin – 14.51
  6. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65: II. Scherzo con variazioni: Allegro con brio – Fr?d?ric Chopin – 4.29
  7. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65: III. Largo – Fr?d?ric Chopin – 4.16
  8. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op.65: IV. Finale: Allegro – Fr?d?ric Chopin – 5.57
  9. Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3 – Fr?d?ric Chopin – 9.20