Elgar: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Smetana: Selections from Ma Vlast. Zuill Bailey, cello; Krzysztof Urbanski, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-34030-02.

Most casual listeners probably know English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) for his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 more than anything he wrote, but his Cello Concerto comes close. He wrote it toward the end of his career in 1919, and because he published it just after the close of the Great War, a lot of it sounds pretty melancholy and solemn. Nevertheless, it has become one of his most-popular works. Cellist Zuill Bailey, Maestro Krzysztof Urbanski, and the Indianapolis Symphony do a fine job with it, even though the 1965 EMI recording with cellist Jacqueline du Pre, conductor John Barbirolli, and the LSO remains a benchmark in the piece.

Elgar once remarked that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.” Zuill apparently takes the composer at his word, producing a robust, responsive, yet earnest and mature interpretation.

The first movement of the Concerto offers a pensive, bittersweet reminiscence of a quieter, more placid world before the War. The second movement Scherzo seems to represent the War itself, and the final two movements the War’s aftermath.

The opening Adagio has a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn mood and grave air. Under Bailey this opening is dark-toned, brawny, and deeply affecting. Although the introduction may be long, slow, and heavy, Bailey makes it alive and exhilarating. The cellist never becomes morbid or depressing but projects the flowing, pensive state of a barely suppressed melancholy. Then, in the Scherzo he adds an aura of light with a really zippy pace, cavorting here and there with the orchestra as though a leaf in the wind. Following that, the third-movement Adagio--the soul of the work--seems more than reflective or contemplative; it seems a full-blown lamentation, most touching, if a little jarring in its musical juxtaposition with the preceding Scherzo. Nevertheless, as Elgar and Bailey remind us, war can be more than jarring.

In the finale, Elgar is all over the place, marking it “Allegro - Moderato - Allegro, ma non troppo.” Bailey keeps it part grave, part celebratory. The Great War, devastating in its consequences, was over, and there were new opportunities on the horizon, a new world shaping up. Things begin in a big, breezy style, which Bailey handles in big, bold fashion; then it transitions into various guises: lyrical, energetic, enthusiastic, melodramatic, sad, quiet, and, finally, exuberant. One could hardly ask for a more expressive rendering than that which Bailey gives us.

The coupling seems a bit odd to me, three selections from Ma Vlast (“My Homeland”), the set of six tone poems by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). I suppose the lives of the two composers on the disc did overlap somewhat, and certainly both the Cello Concerto and Ma Vlast concern issues of war and peace. Still, it seems a stretch. Besides, why only three selections from Smetana’s poem cycle? Why not four? There was room on the disc. Or, better yet, why not the complete work on a separate disc? Who knows. Maybe the orchestra only played three movements at the concert from which Telarc produced the album. I’m sure we should be grateful for what we have.

Whatever, the three Smetana pieces are “Vysehrad” (The High Castle), “Vltava” (The Moldau), and “Sarka.” Having heard so many fine recordings of the entire work over the years from so many fine conductors like Vaclav Neumann (Berlin Classics), Raphael Kubelik (Supraphon), Antal Dorati (Philips or Newton Classics), Paavo Berglund (EMI), Libor Pesek (Virgin), Antoni Wit (Naxos), and others, I couldn’t see as much color in Urbanski’s accounts of the scores. While one cannot seriously fault Urbanski’s performance, there is not a lot in it that sounds significantly better than what we already have. Even the currents of the Moldau seem to be moving too fast and too perfunctorily for us to appreciate them.

Telarc recorded the music live in concert at the Hilbert Circle Theater, Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2012. They miked it fairly close up, presumably to minimize audience noise, and in this regard it largely succeeds. There is little commotion from the folks in the seats. The cello is front and center, as we would expect, maybe a tad too much so. The orchestra sometimes appears a bit too far behind them rather than around them. Still, it all sounds quite nice, with a modest degree of depth and air to the orchestra. I suspect it’s just about the kind of sound the composer wanted, in any case. It’s a good, solid sound, with plenty of firm control.

Unfortunately, the Telarc engineers did not edit out the closing applause for each work, so our concentration gets disrupted at the end of each piece. Alas....

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


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa