Despite a great line of cello virtuosi in the 18th century, the cello as a concerto instrument wasn't terribly popular when it came to the late 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas nowadays, with our view from the Elgar Cello Concerto, we see the instrument as an arch-romantic one, to 19th century composers there was the issue of balance and projection, with worries over the instrument's carrying power in the lower register when playing with an orchestra. Mozart wrote nothing of interest for the solo cello, Beethoven wrote sonatas but only included the instrument in his triple concerto. It was Schumann who broke the mould with his cello concerto, though he was preceded by the cello virtuoso Bernhard Romberg (1767 - 1841) whose works are not so well known nowadays but were studied by Brahms. And of course, Brahms included the instrument in his double concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote the Rocco Variations for the instrument and, of course Dvorak wrote his Cello Concerto. The Schumann and Dvorak have been recorded by the young cellist Jamie Walton with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Schumann's Cello Concerto dates from 1850 and came after the success of his first work for cello and piano. Initially Schumann called the concerto Konzertstuck, perhaps because of its modest scale and the way the three movements run together. Though Schumann had informal run throughs of the work in 1851 and 1852, with two different cellists, no public performance came about. But he did do lots of revision to the work, especially in the area of balance between the soloists and orchestra. The revised version was published in 1854 under the title of Concerto for cello with orchestra accompaniment. By this time Schumann was in the sanatorium and he died two years later. The works first public performance was in 1860 in Leipzig and the work only achieve a regular place on the concert platform in the 20th century thanks to Casals.
Walton's performance is lyrically expressive with an elegant refined tone and a lovely singing line. He plays with a warm tone, not too much vibrato, so that the sound is quite slim and clean but very fine. Speeds in the the opening movement are very relaxed with lovely shape to the melodic line. The second movement has a nice feel for rubato and singing of the line, though at times I would have liked the pulse to feel a bit more forward moving; Walton's performance is very meditative and inward. The third movement is nicely lively with some lovely showy cello work from Walton. The orchestra under Ashkenazy is wonderfully discreet in all three movements, elegant and shapely but never overwhelming. All in all a wonderfully elegant, finely crafted performance which sings.
Regarding timings, Walton and Ashkenazy take a minute less than Pierre Fournier on his recording with Charles Munch, though Rostropovich is overall rather faster than Walton and Ashkenazy, with Tortelier's running time on a par with that of Fournier.
We are in somewhat of a different world when we come to Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor. This was the last of Dvorak's four concertos, and dates from 1894-5. His first attempt in the concerto form was an unorchestrated cello concerto from 1865, the piano concerto followed in 1876 with the violin concerto in 1880, each one developing somewhat on the next. So that the cello concerto sprang fully formed, and was immediately taken up. It was written whilst Dvorak was in the USA and it was intended for the cellist of the Czech string quartet. But when Dvorak returned to Bohemia he revised the work, adding the extended coda partly in response to the fact that his sister-in-law was extremely ill and he had once been in love with her.
The problems with balance between cello and orchestra seem to have stimulated Dvorak. Always a fine orchestrator, he found useful and innovative solutions and was probably influenced by the way Victor Herbert in his cello concerto used the cellos high register and supported it with trombones. Herbert's concerto, a single movement work, was performed in the same concert as Dvorak's New World Symphony in New York which the composer attended.
The Dvorak concerto opens in fine style with a wonderfully grand, and richly textured tutti. Ashkenazy is not bombastic here and his attention to detail ensures that we are listening to Dvorak and not simply ersatz-Brahms as can sometimes happen with performances of Dvorak's concertos. Walton brings all the virtues state above to this concerto, with a great feel for drama. The way Dvorak places much of the cello part in the upper register fits very well with Walton's performing style, giving us some lovely elegant singing lines, flexible rubato and a cherishing of Dvorak's lovely melodies. Technically he is extremely adept and the busier passages scurry by beautifully. Even in the bigger, more strenuous passages he retains a feel for style.
The slow movement is slow, with Ashkenazy lingering over the phrasing and Walton following suit, allowing the line to sing and taking full advantage of the possibilities of rubato. It almost gets self indulgent, but the refinement of the two artists ensures that it does not. It was in this movement that I felt that Czech-ness of Dvorak's writing was in greatest danger of disappearing as this feel comes from the rhythmic vitality of the playing. But then, in the bigger dramatic moments everything comes back together.
The concluding movement is surprisingly unshowy, with a beautiful and thoughtful coda. I would have liked a little more rhythmic crispness and swing from the orchestra, giving us more of a Czech feel. Walton shows himself not afraid to fine his tone down in places, and Ashkenazy is a wonderfully sympathetic accompanist.
Walton and Ashkenazy are considerably slower than Fournier and Hans Rosbaud, adding over three minutes to the overall timing. Tortelier takes about same overall running time as Walton, but Tortelier's first movement is more expansive with the later ones being slightly swifter
Between the two concertos, Walton adds a lovely gem, Dvorak's Silent Woods, an orchestral version of a movement from the piano duet suit Bohemia's Woods. A lovely song-like movement, it enables Walton to sing a melody in fine style.
The Philarmonia Orchestra shows itself to be a fine accompany instrument in all three works. Inevitably, there are few moments when the orchestra can really be given its head. Instead the players craft a finely textured and highly sympathetic accompaniment with some lovely solo moments.
Inevitably, everyone will have their favourite performance of these two concertos, book-ending the 19th century cello concerto tradition. But Walton's elegant, refined tone and singing style will win him many converts and this is a recording which I will be playing again.
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) - Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 128 (1850/54) [23 32]
Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904) - Silent Woods, op.68 no.5 (1841 - 1904) [5.54]
Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904) - Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104 (1894-5) [39.14]
Jamie Walton (cello)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
Recorded at Fairfield Halls, Croydon and Walthamstow Assembly Halls, 4-6 April 2011
SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD322 1CD [68.43] Elsewhere on this blog:
- An encounter with George Benjamin
- Britten boxed set - the Sixteen - CD review
- Robert Holl and Birgid Steinberger at Temple Song
- Britten Canticles - CD review
- Salomon Orchestra 50th anniversary concert
- La Favorite in Paris - opera review
- I was glad - Kings Consort - CD review
- Medea - ENO - opera review
- The Bride and the Bachelors at the Barbican - exhibition review
- Medea music - feature article