Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto in A minor (CD review)

Also, Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor; Faure: Elegy in C minor. Kim Cook, cello; Valeri Vatchev and Grigor Palikarov, Philharmonica Bulgarica. MSR MS 1512.

It's not like the saxophone or trumpet or bass drum where there is a definite lack of concerto material out there. Not that the cellist has a surplus of cello concertos to play, either. The poor cello, a descendent of the bass violin, didn't find a serious place for itself until well into the Baroque period, and even then it held a limited position. Bach wrote his six cello suites, of course; later Haydn wrote a couple of cello concertos and Beethoven a few cello sonatas. But it wasn't until the later Romantic period that the cello came into its own, with concertos for it by Schumann, Dvorak, and Brahms. Then, the twentieth century saw a greater flourishing of material for the instrument. Anyway, the cello concertos by Frenchmen Saint-Saens and Lalo heard here from cellist Kim Cook came somewhat late in the Romantic era, 1872 and 1876 respectively. By that time the cello had firmly established itself as a commonly accepted part of the orchestral picture.

I suppose the question with all of the cello work on the album is how Ms. Cook's playing compares to acknowledged leaders in the cello field, how she holds up to the likes of Rostropovich, Starker, du Pre, Gendron, Ma, Bailey, and such. The answer is that she holds her own, but in a different sort of way. Her style appears sweeter, more lyrical, more singing than most cellists.

We might expect lyricism from the instrument, though. Of all the instruments of the orchestra, the cello is the one that seems best able to convey the feeling and spirit of the human voice. So, yes, Ms. Cook makes the cello speak and sing. Hers is a lovely technique.

First up on Ms. Cook's program is the Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33, by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). In the Saint-Saens, Ms. Cook and Maestro Valeri Vatchev give the music a grand sweep, while at the same time Cook provides a clear voice. Saint-Saens's work may not be the most memorable in the catalogue, but Cook invests it with such charm that it's hard not to like it as it trips merrily and affably along.

Kim Cook
Next, we get a brief interlude between the concertos, the little Elegy in C minor, Op. 24, by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), written in 1897. Faure's piece is a fairly melancholy affair, as its name implies. Ms. Cook's cello contribution fills the music with the grief of the situation, a kind of grave lament and reflection on parting. It makes an appropriately restrained interlude between the two more-outgoing cello concertos.

The program concludes with the Cello Concerto in D minor by French composer Edouard Lalo (1823-1892). It is probably the most well-known item on the program, big and ambitious and communicative. Cook plays it that way as well, with a strong conviction in her performance, which is both dramatic and imaginatively poetic. Frankly, though, I rather enjoyed the quiet moments more than the exuberant ones, but that is not so much a criticism of Ms. Cook as it is of Lalo. The Intermezzo appears especially well crafted and affective, and Maestro Grigor Palikarov and the Philharmonica Bulgarica give her ample support. Finally, Cook shows off her virtuosity in the Allegro Vivace, where she negotiates the complexities of the score with consummate ease.

Product manager Robert LaPorta, recording engineer Christo Pavlov, and digital master engineer Richard Price made the album at the Bulgarian Radio Studio, Sofia, Bulgaria in November 2011 and September 2012. They created one of the better new recordings I've heard in a while. The sound is very dynamic, with a strong impact. What's more, it's a well-defined impact, with a fairly transparent midrange response. I do wish it weren't quite so close-up, however. The cello so dominates the orchestra that you sometimes forget there's even an orchestra involved. There's not much depth to the orchestra, either, which is more the pity with such good sonic characteristics elsewhere. Still, these are minor reservations when we hear such splendid sounds from the cello.


To listen to 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.

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