My wife bought this for me as a surprise present many years ago, having heard it on the radio and knowing immediately that it was something special. Despite owning it, therefore, for years, I have now only just got around to reviewing it, on the grounds that I find myself returning to it frequently.
I am surprised how often I hear quite seasoned lovers of classical music claim not to like Brahms or chamber music. If I were trying to win someone over, the No. 1 in E minor is where I'd start. Both works are full of sinuous, arching melodies and embrace a wide variety of moods, from bucolic charm to reflective melancholy to impassioned turbulence. Not surprisingly, the later work is much grander and more "symphonic" in character - in the intervening twenty-four years Brahms had written four symphonies - while the earlier work is initially more lyrical but closes with a grand, contrapuntal movement that seems like a homage to Bach.
There is a special appeal in hearing these two venerable gentleman - old friends and great artists both - collaborate. Serkin might have been in his eightieth year when he re-studied and recorded these sonatas but he retains a gentle, fluid touch without sacrificing fire. The piano is slightly more recessed than the 'cello, but comes through beautifully and there is no sense in which Serkin is the junior partner. Rostropovich is his usual dynamic self, producing meaty, resonant tone and making much of lower reaches of his instrument. The recording acoustic is vivid and intimate; we are right on top of the musicians but not unpleasantly so. A classic.