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Mendelssohn: Complete Works for Cello and Piano (Keith Robinson & Donna Lee) Review

As luck would have it, I own a copy of the Cello Sonata No. 2 by Emanuel Feuermann of sainted memory, with the excellent Franz Rupp at the piano, but putting him on after Keith Robinson and Donna Lee was an astounding downer. Feuermann plays with his usual burnished tone, impeccable bowing and energy, but Robinson and Lee just have so much more high spirits, I’d even say pure joy, in their playing, that the comparison is like night and day. Perhaps some of this stems from the fact that Feuermann and Rupp were only occasional partners, mostly on records, while the liner notes for this CD say that Robinson and Lee are long-standing concert partners, and have in fact given Mendelssohn’s cello works together several times. Familiarity does indeed breed comfort, and trust, in each other that results in this kind of music-making.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is also there in their performance of the Variations Concertantes, which I also have played by Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein on Denon 3326. These two musicians, long-standing concert partners, also do an outstanding job with the music, but darn it, Robinson and Lee again have a slight edge in sheer enthusiasm. They just love this music so much, and the love is infectious.

At first I wondered whether or not Robinson’s playing, like that of Suren Bagratuni (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), would only be impressive in the fast movements, but fortunately this was not the case. The Adagio of the second sonata, and the Andante of the first, were played with a palpable feeling of emotional involvement—and, again, it was Lee whose support, both musical and mental, made a great deal of the difference. I cannot say whether or not her solo playing has the same esprit de corps and emotional flow as her accompaniments here, having never heard her in that context, but she simply blew me away on this disc. Just listen, for instance, to the playful way both artists approach the second sonata’s Allegretto, a performance unique in my experience. Robinson almost plays those tricky upward flourishes in a syncopated manner, which gives them an unusual piquancy.

In the first sonata, they continue their joint exploration of Mendelssohn’s music in much the same vein. I lost count of the number of times Robinson’s cello led Lee into a rhythmic “spring” from which the music leapt like a fawn in the woods, or the times when Lee’s sparkling triplets and 16th notes altered the rhythm ever-so-slightly, so that when Robinson re-entered it was as if he had a trampoline from which to bounce. (I’m sure this reads somewhat odd in print, but if you listen to the disc you’ll know exactly what I mean.) Just one example: there’s an odd passage in the first movement where the cello plays rapid triplets while the piano plays chime chords underneath. It’s not a moment that all cello-piano combinations make a great deal of, but in this performance—despite the relatively quiet dynamics of the passage—it was one of those moments when you held your breath, hoping that they wouldn’t break the spell. They didn’t. After an equally moving performance of the slow movement, they are off to the races in the finale, which nevertheless manages to never sound rushed despite a blistering Allegro.

The one and only Song Without Words composed for another instrument besides the piano is played with such emotion, particularly by Robinson, that one almost wishes there were words to it. (I’ve often wondered if any other critic has noted, as I have over the years, the very close relationship of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words to the songs of Schumann.) Were this an actual song performed by a mezzo or a baritone (the key indicates such a vocal range), and sung by one of the finer singers of our day, people would be raving about it.

As mentioned earlier, their performance of the Variations Concertantes is splendid. I will go further and say that the way it builds in both momentum and emotional flow is something to marvel. Time and again, this duo seems to find so many moments in the music where they said to themselves while rehearsing, “Wow! Look at this!” that the listener is swept up in their musical roller-coaster ride. Sometimes, even the pauses between variations have a certain mood.

Virtually the same program is also available by cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Huw Watkins on Chandos 10701, and by David Geringas with Ian Fountain on Profil 8003. Both are excellent, and have garnered good critical reviews, and I have sampled the Watkins CD and found it very fine, but my gut feeling is still to go with Robinson and Lee. This one is, quite simply, amazing. 

–Lynn René Bayley

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