Elgar: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Sospiri, Salut d’amour, La capricieuse; Dvorak: Waldesruh’, Rondo; Respighi: Adagio con variazioni. Sol Gabetta, cello; Mario Venzago, Danish National Symphony Orchestra. RCA 88697658242.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his Cello Concerto relatively late in his career, 1919, and because it appeared just after the devastation of the First World War, much of it sounds rather solemn and melancholy. Regardless, it quickly became one of the composer’s most-cherished compositions. Although the 1965 EMI recording by cellist Jacqueline du Pre and conductor John Barbirolli is still my benchmark in the work, the award-winning cellist Sol Gabetta puts in a fine performance in this 2012 RCA release with conductor Mario Venzago and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

Interestingly, Ms. Gabetta was only a few years older than Ms. du Pre when she recorded the work. Critics in 1965 initially faulted Ms. du Pre for putting too much spirit, too much energy, into her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her saying that such exuberance was necessary; besides, Elgar himself once remarked that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.” In any case, in the present recording Ms. Gabetta walks a clear line between exuberance and somberness; perhaps one could call it a lively, though gentle, solemnity.

The first and third movements of the Concerto are especially noteworthy for their wistful, nostalgic look back at a calmer, more tranquil world before the Great War, and it is here that no one can accuse Ms. Gabetta of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish.

The opening Adagio has a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn tone, taken at a grave pace by Ms. Gabetta and Maestro Vengazo. Nevertheless, we also see from the start that Ms. Gabetta is infusing the work with an appropriately lyrical melancholy.

The second-movement Scherzo takes up almost immediately but requires a moment or two to develop. Once underway, Ms. Gabetta provides a virtuosic display of musicianship as she and her part in the proceedings playfully banter back and forth with the orchestra. While the movement almost appears out of place in the context of the rest of the piece, Ms. Gabetta does her best to integrate it effectively.

The Adagio is the soul of the work, and Ms. Gabetta delivers a moving rendition of it, reminding us of the seriousness of Elgar’s intent. Its relationship to the first movement comes through more obviously than ever.

The finale is the most exuberant section of the music, yet Ms. Gabetta reminds us, subtly, of what the piece is all about. It ends on a solidly positive note while still being contemplative on the whole. Ms. Gabetta never overdramatizes the piece nor sentimentalizes it. She steers a pretty straight course, keeping the emotional side of the music well grounded in reality yet still conveying plenty of emotion. If that sounds contradictory, Elgar meant the work to be as conflicting as it sounds, part grave, part celebratory. The Great War had been devastating, but it was over. There were new opportunities on the horizon, new lives to live, a new world to make. Ms. Gabetta would seem to understand this.

Because the Cello Concerto is a short work, under half an hour, the folks at Sony generously fill out the disc with a number of shorter pieces for cello and orchestra of similar tone from Elgar, Dvorak, and Respighi. Elgar’s Sospiri is touching in its plaintive longing; the popular, light, and beautiful Salut d’amour seems notwithstanding tinged with a degree of anxiety; and La capricieuse sounds sweet and Romantic as Ms. Gabetta dances gently through it.

The works by Dvorak and Respighi are equally appealing in Ms. Gabetta’s hands. She maintains a graceful, casual, flowing, and forceful mood throughout, each piece of music always complementing the others.

RCA recorded the album in November of 2009 at the Koncerthuset DR Byen, Copenhagen, Denmark, with generally pleasing results. Although the sound is fairly close-up, with a diminished sense of depth and space, it is not at all bright, hard, edgy, or particularly compartmentalized. It comes across quite smoothly, with a pleasantly lifelike warmth. The cello appears much closer than the rest of the orchestra, which is perhaps its only real shortcoming; yet as this is a concerto, after all, maybe it’s fitting that the soloist get as much as attention as possible.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa