Shostakovich: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Britten: Cello Symphony. Johannes Moser, cello; Pietari Inkinen, WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln. Hanssler Classic CD 98.643.

The cello has never been the most popular instrument around which to build a concerto, so it's not surprising that so few cello concertos exist and that early composers seldom saw fit to write them. But that didn't stop two of the twentieth century's most important composers, Shostakovich and Britten, and it doesn't stop German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser from pursuing a passion for new and modern music, even if one can hardly call the two pieces on this disc "new" or "modern" anymore. Still, they make good companions, coming as they do almost contemporaneously.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 in 1959, dedicating it to the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who also premiered it. Stalin had been dead several years by then, so Soviet-Russian composers were a little freer to express themselves without the threat of heavy government censorship. Shostakovich scores his concerto for a relatively small chamber orchestra, from which the cello emerges the solid leader.

The first movement is a rather lively, even humorous march, which Moser pulls off in fine fashion, never flashy yet very precise in a rendition filled with vitality. The second, slow movement Shostakovich supposedly modeled on Russian folk music, and it does have a plaintive, soulful quality to it under Moser. The third movement takes us into much more dangerous territory, the complete opposite of how the work began, and it must have given the government overseers some cause to doubt the composer's intentions to produce music conforming to the Party's pedestrian cultural tastes. This Cadenza takes us directly and without pause to the brief, throbbing finale, in which Moser's cello almost cries out for some kind of release.

The second work on the program is the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 by the English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It was again Rostropovich to whom Britten dedicated it and the performer who premiered it. Britten uses a much larger orchestra than Shostakovich did, and the general tone of the music is different and more varied. And again in this recording we get a most eloquent and reflective response from Moser and his cello, which practically speaks aloud to us in musical terms, especially in the second-movement Presto with its bizarre, eccentric, yet wholly fascinating mood changes. All of which leads us to a lengthy finale of grand, formal proportions, Moser guiding us with his cello through a series of intricate passageways running hither and yon in slightly dark places.

Moser proves his worth as a virtuosic performer, keeping one glued to his playing even when the music is less than ideal for easy accessibility. Moser makes it accessible and all but forces us to enjoy it whether we want to or not. He's a most persuasive, almost mesmeric artist.

The sound, recorded in 2011 at the Koln Philharmonie, is excellent. Although in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto the cello seems a bit close at first, one gets used to it, and the instrument's proximity does serve to remind us of its dominant importance, after all. More important, it emphasizes and reveals the instrument's rich, resonant sounds, with a fine sense of depth in the small orchestra behind it. There is also a fine sense of air around all the instruments and plenty of transparency in the midrange.

Remarkably, in the longer Britten piece the sonics are just as clear and just as lifelike within a wonderfully natural-sounding acoustic setting. The very top end might have been a touch more extended and open; otherwise, it's an impressive recording overall.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa