One of the fascinating features of classical music is how international it has become. Although long dominated by Europeans, Western classical music has spread around the globe in terms of both composers and performers. As evidence of that internationalization, what we have here is a recording of music by a pair of Russian composers performed by a Korean cellist who trained in the USA, Germany, and France (and is now a Professor of Cello at the Beijing Central Conservatory) and a French pianist who trained in Switzerland and Germany. Adding to the international flair of this release, the liner booklet (itself printed in Korea, the recording sessions having taken place in Germany) displays the first Sony recording by Ms. Lim -- French cello concertos in conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra led by an American conductor who was born in Japan and is music director of the Mexico City Philharmonic. "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of music…"
I don't think I would be offending anyone by remarking that Russian music tends to be colorful and imbued with passion. Examples that quickly spring to mind are the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the tone poems of Rismsky-Korsoakov, and the ballets of Stravinsky. Or perhaps we might think of Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 or Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. These examples are all large-scale symphonic efforts, but what we have here in this recording are much smaller-scale compositions that are nonetheless colorful and passionate.
The cello is an instrument with great expressive potential, as is, of course, the piano (technically a percussion instrument but capable of profoundly lyrical expression), and both Rachmaninov and Prokofiev are true masters of emotion in music. Cellist Hee-Young Lim (b. 1987) says of the program she has chosen for this recording, "I love how each one of these pieces shows a sense of resilience and unapologetically commits to owning this."
The emotional dimension of this repertoire is evident from the opening measures of the Cello Sonata in g minor by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), which the composer wrote in 1901 after successfully recovering from the creative depression he had suffered in the wake of the unsuccessful debut of his Piano Concerto No. 1. That same year, he also completed his most popular work, the Piano Concerto No. 2. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that a striking characteristic of the sonata is the prominence given to the piano. Lim recalls that her interest in the piece "came late in my studies because I always thought that, despite the beautiful melodies, it was the 'Fifth Piano Concerto' accompanied by the cello. I wished we had as many notes as the piano had! However, I now truly enjoy playing this sonata, which represents great chamber music by Rachmaninov."
|Hee-Young Lim and Nathalia Milstein|
Although the Cello Sonata in C of 1948 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1963) is smaller in scale than the Rachmaninov (on this recording, the former's three movements are timed at 11:30, 5:03, and 8:47 while the latter's four movements are timed at 13:03, 6:40, 6:05, and 11:11), it packs no less a musical and emotional wallop. Cellist Lim remarks of this sonata that "it has greater range for the cello [compared to the Rachmaninov], with more technical variety. I like the fact that it has a lot of fantasy, like a fairy tale. I feel I'm telling a story."
The opening movement begins with the cello playing in its lower registers, soon joined by the piano, this time playing more percussively than in the Rachmaninov. Moving on, the cello introduces a different theme in a higher register, followed by some plucking accompaniment as the piano takes over the lead for a spell. At about four minutes in, there is a more agitated new melody, followed by some more lyrical lines. As the movement comes to its close, the cello engages in some highly energetic "fiddling," but the movement ends quietly. The second movement at times seems to have the rhythmic feel of a children's song, but its most striking feature -- at least to these ears -- is the incorporation of a musical phrase that sounds for all the world as though Prokofiev lifted it from the American minstrel song, "Dixie." Although it does not play a major role in the movement, to hear a musical phrase from "Dixie" in the midst of a Russian cello sonata is quite an ear-opening experience. The third and final movement begins with plenty of gusto, fast and driving, with plenty of energy from both players. There is a transition to a slower melody about halfway through, but then it is back to increased energy as the sonata heads down the home stretch. Brava! This is a truly engaging piece of music that I wish I had discovered long ago.
The final piece is one that I – and doubtless many other music lovers -- did in fact discover many years ago (although probably not in this particular arrangement), Rachmaninov's Vocalise, originally scored for soprano and orchestra. Lim writes of this piece, "given that it's a song without words, it's an ideal piece for cello, as the cello is so similar to the human voice. I feel somehow deeply linked to this song, I love its emotional intimacy and passion." To their great credit, Lim and Milstein let Rachmaniov's music speak for itself. There is no sense of exaggerated emotionalism or expressive overload in their playing. This music is expressive as written and does not need extra secret sauce to be poured on by the performers. The end result of their relatively straightforward but nonetheless committed approach is enjoyable and moving. Although this arrangement makes me realize that I would prefer to hear the orchestral version instead (there is a sonically resplendent version sung by Syliva McNair with David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on a vintage Telarc CD that also includes a terrific rendition of his Symphony No. 2), that by no means diminishes the pleasure to be found in this scaled-down version, which also sings straight from and to the heart.
For chamber music fans who love melody and emotional depth, I highly recommend this release. And for those just discovering classical music who have not yet delved into the chamber music repertoire, this well-produced and well-engineered release would make an excellent introduction.
To listen to an excerpt from this album, click below: