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Positive Feedback ISSUE 46
november/december 2009


Janos Starker and György Sebök, Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano
by Oliver Amnuayphol


Janos Starker, György Sebök, Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, and Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99. Speaker Corners/Mercury Records. Catalog Number: SR90392 (LP, stereo). Format: 180 gram LP. Original release year: 1964. Harold Lawrence, Producer

What do you get when you mix together one classically bent Romantic-era composer, a virtuoso cellist, and a legendary record label? If it's Johannes Brahms, Janos Starker, and Mercury Living Presence we're talking about, what you get is Speakers Corner's reissue of MLP's Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38 and Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99, featuring Janos Starker & György Sebök. Sure, the original issue LP has been long recognized as sounding pretty darn good already, even if some recent vintage reissue efforts have been lackluster to say the least. So then: How well does this circa 45-year-old recording respond to a little polish via the Speakers Corner treatment?

Very, very well, in fact. Recorded in 1964 at Watford Town Hall by the legendary C. Robert Fine, Starker and Sebök's Brahms sonatas are musical wonders. There's an emotional intensity and lyrical fluidity to the way Starker and Sebök interpret Brahms, and the duo perform these pieces in a supremely musical and cohesive manner. Just listen to the "Allegretto quasi minuetto" from the first sonata to hear how Starker and Sebök make the most of Brahms' penchant for counterpoint and development, effortlessly carrying the musical line from note to note. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the album is the third movement of Sonata No. 2, the "Allegro passionato.” As its name implies, the "passionato" is full of vivid, highly expressive musical ideas, and Starker/Sebök completely exploit every rhythmic contrast, melodic theme, and dynamic gradation of the piece. Here Starker and Sebök give nothing away to the Du Pre/Barenboim or Ma/Ax Brahms sonatas, playing with a natural yet non-clinical precision that fully communicates the movement's drama and tension.

Sonically, Speakers Corner has hit one completely out of the park with the Brahms sonatas, checking all the right boxes when compared to the original: overall tonality and timbre now sound more natural; imaging is more realistic, with a fine sense of scale that puts the music making right in your room; the soundstage is now deeper and better-layered; and overall there's a more intimate feel, with subtle instrumental details left completely intact. Starker's cello sounds so full and alive at times that it's spooky: there's so much vivid warmth, life and richness present that you can practically feel every rosin-laden bow stroke. Plucked strings sound realistic, and it's also easy to hear how Starker draws that huge and powerful sound from his cello's resonating body. Moreover, Sebök's piano is just as densely textured, with clear and easily discernable attack, sustain, and decay components to the notes—something rarely heard from recorded piano. Put all of these elements together and you have a thoroughly modern sounding album, one that makes it hard to believe it was recorded over forty years ago. So kudos to Speakers Corner: they did one heck of a fine job coaxing all the sonic goodness from the master tapes on this one.

No doubt about it: this Starker/Sebök Brahms sonatas reissue is an outstanding record, one that honors the Mercury Living Presence legacy in every way. Speaker's Corner has made this already wonderful-sounding record even better, all the while keeping intact the sonic character and positive qualities of the original. While some may marginally prefer other Brahms sonatas recordings for certain performance virtues, none can match this one for sheer sound quality—its utter lack of noticeable sonic deficiencies means you'll have no problems just kicking back and enjoying the music. The 35 bucks you'll spend for this record will seem like chump change compared to the amount of musical and sonic bliss on tap.

So do yourself a favor and buy this record pronto. Heck—buy two and keep one on reserve, as I'm willing to bet you'll wear out your first copy by playing it so much. This is a true reference recording that no music-loving audiophile should be without.