Once one is listening to accomplished performers there is a series of ever finer lines which distinguish the truly great recordings from the rest of the field. Following with the score, it is clear that these artists have taken careful note of all Beethoven’s instructions, and there is certainly a wide dynamic range to their playing. Moreover, the recording is very clear – the piano warm and well-balanced with the cello. And yet, despite the obvious energy and commitment of the performances, this is not a benchmark recording. Fathoming the ingredients that create that elusive magic is problematic, but it is the cumulative effect of many seemingly small details.
One of the elements, particularly in Beethoven, concerns the variety of arm weight attached to bow strokes. Heinrich Schiff (Phillips) is particularly brilliant in this regard: for within three notes he is able to muster incredible differences of tone without any hint of self-conscious gesture. Perhaps by itself that is a surface skill. But add to it the concept of colour within a phrase, and it becomes the paint brush with which one can effect intelligent tonal variety.
By contrast with Schiff’s high level of sophistication, the operatically inclined A major opening Allegro in particular exposes Bailey’s somewhat brutalised articulation, with Bartókian pizzicato dealing a punishing blow to music that is primarily lyrical. Of course the considerable piano part demands a strong sense of dialogue between the performers and in the reflective Adagios of the op.5 sonatas I miss the truly intimate conversations that characterise the recording from Chuchro and Panenka on Supraphon. The present version is certainly good, but not remarkable, and that is what it has to be today given the abundance of alternatives.