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: