INKPOT#85 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: ELGAR/LUTOSLAWSKI Cello Concerti. Wispelwey/Netherlands RPO/van Steen (Channel)

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E op. 85 (1919)
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Cello Concerto (1970)

Pieter Wispelwey cello
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
conducted by Jac van Steen

[53:45] full-price

by Adrian Tan

A recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto in the “post-du Pré era” is a daunting task. Wispelwey admits as much in the liner notes that he personally pens for his recordings. He admits as well to have done his preparation based not just on the score but on the various recordings of the piece as well, because “ignoring the wealth of recordings would mean denying that one always has, in one way or another, been influenced. Therefore, it’s better to keep one’s scope as broad as possible and simply hope that some traces of individuality will refuse to be denied.”

The man’s sincerity, humility and wisdom, put across by his writing, are but additional qualities we can admire next to his virtuosity and masterful musicianship. An expert on stylistics and a master of both authentic and modern instruments, Wispelwey is no mere personality when he approaches a piece of music. He has left more than “traces” of originality in his take of this immortal concerto, giving us a refreshing alternative to du Pré’s legendary recording.

While I’d still heartily recommend the du Pré/Barbirolli on EMI (CDC 5 55527-2) to anyone who wants a good stereo recording, I’d persuade all the rest of us who already have that to get a copy of this one.

What’s the difference? Du Pré plays with an indomitable passion, freely rhapsodic and sensually provocative. Wispelwey plays with a passion painfully restrained, thoughtfully structured – an inspiring performance that never runs amock recklessness, each detail firmly in place.

 The opening chords on the cello are always a determining factor for me, whether or not the rest of the recording is worth listening to. This one catches your attention at once, immediately poignant, digging deep into the depths of the lower sonorities unleashing a painful, yet contained cry, moving in the extreme. The other passage that is most arresting is where the soloists builds with an ascending scale-figure before the tremendous orchestral tutti on the theme.

Du Pré’s and Babrirolli’s unbridled emotions and perfect dramatic timing erupt into torrents of feelings – one moment in the history of music recording that will never be forgotten. Wispelwey and van Steen is equally relentless. Though certainly not matching up to the energy of the former recording, it achieves that collapse of inner restraint that brings tears to one’s eyes.

The playful scherzo that follows this tragic movement blends the virtuosity and cheekiness, reminiscent of Yo-Yo Ma’s delightful account with Previn (Sony SMK53333). The third movement Adagio is sublime in du Pré’s hands. Wispelwey takes it faster, losing some of the atmosphere of contemplation, coming across in a kind of yearning. Here his tone is ravishing with just the right amount of vibrato. This movement becomes all the more captivating thus; for me it became so beautiful that I did not want it to pass quite so quickly.

The final movement is in direct contrast with a dash of bravura, a kind of renewal of faith and moving on with occasional looks over the shoulder; the most gripping being that final look recapitulating the opening of the first movement before a breathtaking flourish in the final bars. Wispelwey’s interpretation shines, not just because he puts so much care and detail into each phrase, but also because his big picture is equally carefully painted, balancing and contrasting colors and feelings between sections to make the piece mean something on the whole. Elgar’s music is memorable in its effectiveness and emotional power, but it is his subtle musicianship that demonstrates his genius. Wispelwey’s much more thorough approach certainly does more justice to the latter aspect, though I’d say that he did well in the former as well.

 Wispelwey’s attention to detail for the larger structure of the work is his greatest asset when brought to bear on Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, a work written 50 years after Elgar’s. Commissioned by the great Russian cellist Rostropovich, the Polish composer (left) went on to create this highly original work that is gaining prominence in the cello repertoire. Those familiar with Lutoslawski’s works, such as the fabulous Concerto for Orchestra and Paganini Variations, would know his exact, painstakingly planned structural forms that often meant unusually long times for a composition to be completed. The care each conductor and performer takes in performing a work by Lutoslawski is uncanny, yet the rewards are more often than not worth the effort.

In this piece, Wispelwey’s concentration is amazing, articulating each nuance with as much clarity as he can. Yet he manages to perform this exacting task with such an apparent sense of fun. In his notes, he draws up a sort of “blueprint” for the listener to follow track by track, what could be deemed as the ‘adventures of the solo cello in dialogue with (and often bullied by) the other sections (especially the brass) of the orchestra’. For one who is unfamiliar with this music, and especially those who are frightened by such strange sounds, this guide is invaluable. It’s amazing how vivid the music is as you read Wispelwey’s description – I draw perhaps an odd comparison with reading the sonnets while listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – this recording should be indispensable for anyone keen to explore Lutoslawski’s music.

Rostroprovich’s 1975 recording with the composer conducting is beyond doubt authoritative. Next to that (EMI CDC7 49304-2), I strongly recommend this Channel rendition as a clear first choice.

The Netherlands Radio Orchestra and their conductor Jac Van Steen surprised me with the quality of their playing, and the sensitivity they showed to the soloist and the music. The accompaniment is absolutely first class. I look forward to a showcase of their talent in a disc of orchestral music.

Channel Classics is certainly fortunate to have Wispelwey on their roster of artists. Here is a cellist of tremendous talent and deserving of the highest accolades. Other than this album, you should also rush out to get a copy of his Bach unaccompanied Cello Suites (reviewed here) and his Vivaldi concertos with the acclaimed period-instrument ensemble Florilegium. In his liner notes, he cites Isserlis, Yo-Yo Ma and Heinrich Schiff – three amongst others who are THE great artists on the cello in the last 20 years. To that list, we can surely add Pieter Wispelwey.
Adrian Tan will be away in hiding from De Pre fanatics for writing an article about another version of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

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