French Cello Concertos (CD review)

Saint-Saens, Lalo, Milhaud, Offenbach, Massenet. Hee-Young Lim, cello; Scott Yoo, London Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical S80425C.

Her current recording, "French Cello Concertos," is the debut album for Korean cellist Hee-Young Lim, who has made quite a name for herself in the past few years. Not only has she won major international competitions, she is Principal Solo Cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the first Korean cello professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She tours as a soloist and recitalist and performs with the world's leading orchestras. It's no wonder, then, that so big and prestigious a record label as Sony Classical wanted to promote her first release.

Supported by conductor Scott Yoo and the London Symphony Orchestra, Ms. Lim performs five well-known cello pieces by French composers: Saint-Saens, Lalo, Milhaud, Offenbach, and Massenet. Not that there is exactly a surplus of cello concertos to play, though. 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. Yet it wasn't until the later Romantic period that the cello began to flourish, with Schumann, Dvorak, and Brahms writing concertos for it. Then, the twentieth century saw a greater blossoming of material for the instrument. Anyway, the major attraction here, Saint-Saens's cello concerto, came somewhat late in the Romantic era, 1872, by which time the cello had firmly established itself as a commonly accepted part of the orchestral picture.

So, the first thing up is the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in A by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Written in one continuous movement split into three separate sections with interrelated ideas, Saint-Saens's concerto was unconventional for its time. Nevertheless, it became a favorite of cellists and composers everywhere, some of them like Rachmaninov and Shostakovich declaring it the greatest of all cello concertos.

Hee-Young Lim
The concerto keeps the solo instrument in the foreground almost the whole time, and Ms. Lim takes advantage of this situation with playing of steadfast command. Yet unlike so many other soloists, she never tries to dominate the music with the force of her personality. The musical lines are always clean and direct, the passion expressed through the score itself, not her own virtuosity. This is not to say she isn't a marvel to listen to; she is an accomplished musician and the concerto's finale is an amazing whirlwind of notes. But she is also a delicate, introspective musician, and much of her talent is in the nuances of her playing. In other words, while there are more bravura performances you can find, there are none more sensitively committed.

Next, and maybe equally famous, is the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in d minor by Edouard Lalo (1823-92), which he wrote in 1876. He arranged it in a more traditional style than Saint-Saens did his concerto a few years earlier, and perhaps because of its strong hints of Spanish flamenco music, it gets its fair share of performances and recordings. Ms. Lim takes the first two movements at a slightly more leisurely pace than one often hears, and it adds a sweet tone that complements the nature of this Spanish-influenced French music. It's an elegant reading, full of operatic color and character in its first two movements and a whole lot of zest in its final moments.

After that we find the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). Written in 1934, its more modern and jazz-inflected disposition is notably different from that of the more Romantic Saint-Saens and Lalo pieces. Milhaud's work relies less on pure melody and more on displays of seemingly indiscriminate mood swings from lyrical tenderness to somber reflection to a nearly cheerful giddiness. The oddness of the music continues despite a lovely opening stretch that Ms. Lim makes the most of before Milhaud starts going in all directions at once. Give Ms. Lim credit for holding the work together so well and having it come through so engagingly.

Following the three concertos, we get two shorter pieces: Les larmes de Jacqueline ("The Tears of Jacqueline") by Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) and the familiar "Meditation" from the opera Thais by Jules Massenet (1842-1912). They are the icing on the cake and bring the program to a satisfying end.

Producer Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi recorded the music at Abbey Road Studios, London in July 2018. And what a pleasure it is to hear the London Symphony back recording at Abbey Road, the scene of so many of their previous successes. As I said earlier, the cello is in the forefront of the musical activity, which is, I suppose, the way it ought to be. In any case, the sound is precise, well defined, solid, and robust. The cello carries plenty of weight and makes a firm impression on the ear. The orchestra is almost secondary, but it, too, sounds splendid, with clean detailing, strong dynamics, and a realistic sense of presence. In fact, the sound of the LSO reminded me a lot of the sound of their EMI recordings of the late Sixties and Seventies, and that is high praise, indeed.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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