Music Reviews

‘DUO’ from Cobra Records

Are female Cellists better than male?

Of late an array of young and talented female cello players have drawn our attention, like the promising Dutch, Ellen van Poucke, the Swiss revelation, Nadège Rochat, and, of course, the slightly more mature American, Alisa Weilerstein, and Argentinian, Sol Gabetta, both already playing at the highest international level. 

More recently two female cellists, the Russian-born Maya Fridman and – here in the spotlight – the German-Irish Nuala McKenna, finalists of the 2018/19 Dutch Classical Talent, are knocking at the door of fame. 

It begs the question if female cellists have something their male colleagues don’t. Are they better than their male counterparts? That is, of course, a ridiculous suggestion. Nonetheless, they may be ‘different’. That is, at least, my subjective view. They somehow seem more focused on detail and precision; more poetical than sentimental, more assertive than powerful. A matter of personal appreciation, no doubt. But listening to Nuala McKenna, I believe that she proves my impression. 

The real proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

Rankings in music contests are not all that matters. Who still knows that Mitsuku Uchida came only 10th in the 1968 Brussels Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition, and Emanuel Ax 7th in 1972? A contender having an off-day, or, perhaps, a juror feeling bad? Both possible. And how many top artists never passed that nerve-racking path to their fortunes? For an objective judgement, the real proof of the pudding is always in the eating. And even an inexperienced cook will know that for a tasty pudding, several ingredients are needed. Talent is number one. Technique and perseverance come next. 

Nuala did not come first (the award) in the DCT contest. So what? I may be unjustly biased but I trust my own ears always best. Listening to Nuala McKenna it is clear to me that she possesses the talent and the technical skills allowing her to give ample and refined expression to her reading of a score in order to obtain a superbly rewarding result. 

But there still are more elements that can make or break a successful release.

Nuala McKenna and Robert Kulek recording ‘DUO’

A recording is more than a microphone and a console.

Once upon a time recording engineers were accessories not needing to be named on the sleeve of an LP (as they were called in those days). How unjustified that was. Over the years things have changed for the better. Today’s recording engineers are recognised as key players in the process. In the realm of high resolution, the person at the console must not only have the best equipment to do so but also be a musically qualified partner in crime. 

I once assisted at a recording session where the engineer suggested changing a note in the score for a better result. As it turned out, there was indeed a mistake, which the young and less experienced musician hadn’t dared to alter. It underscores the importance of what is now called ‘The Art of Sound’. 

Listening to this new release, I was thoroughly impressed by Cobra’s engineer Tom Peeters. Do read about him in David Hopkins’s illuminating article Meet the Magicians: Tom Peeters of Cobra Records

Tom Peeters of Cobra Records

One plus one makes three.

The three sonatas that DUO have selected for this release do have in common that they were written in the days of Nazi oppression. Yet by three different composers in three different styles. Some of it is no easy fare. However, Nuala McKenna’s track record is one of the high way rather than the easy low way. Her debut album ‘SOLO: Kodaly, Ligeti, Britten’ garnered immediate and immense success. 

Her eloquent style is eminently suited to bringing the three war-time se Sonatas to full bloom. This applies in particular to Poulenc’s which was in his time discarded as having no real importance. Nuala’s reading will change your mind completely. 

The liner notes give all there is to know about each of the compositions and its creators. Compulsive reading, I’d say. But we mustn’t forget Robert Kulek’s contribution to all of this. McKenna could not have wished for a better companion. Kulek’s expertise in this field is widely known to be among the very best available.

As the saying goes: ‘It takes two to tango’. Both duo partners take full responsibility for the end result. By the same token, both inspire one another to arrive at a higher level as though one plus one makes three. And that is the magic of this new release. Thanks to Kulek’s inspirational and stimulant input I dare say that Nuala McKenna can look forward to a bright future. And with this, I rest my case.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France

Copyright © 2023 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply