Wednesday 9 October 2013

A most desirable new release from Hamonia Mundi featuring Jean-Guihen Queyras with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek in Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 was Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) last substantial work, completed in 1919 . The death of his wife in 1920, the social changes following the First World War and the feeling that his music was no longer appreciated all added to his not producing any more works of substance. He did write a number of lightweight works including the Severn Suite and Nursery Suite and, as Anthony Payne’s remarkable ‘realisation’ of the sketches for the Third Symphony indicate, towards the end of his life, an Indian summer of composition may have been likely but for his death in 1934.

Whatever may have been, one thing is certain, Elgar’s Cello Concerto represents the end of an era for the composer, in an autumnal work that is shorter and sparer than his earlier works.

It was first performed by Felix Salmond at the Queen’s Hall, London on 26th October 1919. Since then there have been numerous recordings of this great concerto. Jacqueline du Pré’s famous recording with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli has become legendary yet there are many more ways to interpret this work than du Pré’s overt emotionalism.

A new release from Harmonia Mundi couples the Elgar concerto with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and two small works by Dvorak, his Rondo, Op. 94 and Klid (Silent Woods), Op.68/5 and features cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek
HMC 902148

I have to say immediately that Queyras brings something really special to the Elgar. The immediate impression at the opening of the Adagio – Moderato is of some really muscular playing yet, as the music quietens, Queyras gives some rich dark chords and some impressive hushed moments, wonderfully supported by Jiří Bělohlávek. Occasionally Jean-Guihen Queyras uses little or no vibrato giving an increased feeling of vulnerability. The opening movement is unhurried allowing the music to be reflective as well as wistful. There is an unforced quality that is really appealing.

In the Lento – Allegro molto, Queyras brings some wonderfully atmospheric playing, offsetting thrilling moments with passages of hushed beauty. Bělohlávek provides orchestral moments of great beauty before a superb coda, so fleet yet restrained.

Queyras’ beautiful tone, so evident throughout, reveals itself to the full in the Adagio, a glowing elegy for a lost world. There is some very special playing here indeed, with Queyras showing superb control and intonation. His partnership with Bělohlávek and the BBCSO is perfect.

There is a glorious opening to the final movement with its many changes of mood and marked Allegro – Moderato – Allegro ma non troppo – Poco piu lento – Adagio.

I particularly love Queyras’ deep rich tones, yet there is a mellowness to his entire range. Bělohlávek brings off the central short climax in such a natural way with no sense of pomposity. The lovely poco piu lento, with such lovely, subtle colouring and textures, is superb. The pacing and dynamics throughout are impressive from both cellist and orchestra. And what a great coda there is, rising from a hushed passage to a wonderfully confident, or perhaps defiant, conclusion.

Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Rondo in G minor, Op.94 is no less impressively played. Written originally for cello and piano in 1891, the composer orchestrated it in 1893, the version heard here . There’s a quality here that I find it hard to define; the way this cellist projects such a range of tones and colours whilst retaining a mellowness and calm. Yet in the faster, livelier passages he rises to them with such a naturalness. There are moments in this Rondo that really tug at the emotions. Queyras’1696 Gioffredo Cappa cello must contribute to the wonderful, distinctive tone that he produces.

Dvořák’s Klid (Silent Woods), Op.68/5 is played here in an arrangement for cello and orchestra taken from Silent Woods, No.5 of his From the Bohemian Woods, Op.68, for piano duet. Again Queyras uses vibrato very sparingly to great effect. This cellist extracts some lovely colours and tones from his instrument whilst Bělohlávek and the orchestra provide some beautifully turned phrases in a performance that is wonderfully done.

Sadly Tchaikovsky never wrote a cello concerto yet his Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, Op.33 must be the closest he ever came to doing so. The variations are not on a genuine Rococo theme but on an original theme devised by Tchaikovsky in the Rococo style.

The variations were written during December 1876 for the German cellist, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a fellow-professor at the Moscow Conservatory, who gave the premiere in Moscow on 30th November 1877.

After a lovely Moderato assai quasi Andante opening, the theme is beautifully presented by the orchestra before the cellist appears lightly playing the theme, Moderato semplice. As Queyras introduces the Variations I and II, Tempo della Thema, he gives some lovely lithe playing whilst the Andante sostenuto has the most exquisite tones, with Bělohlávek and the orchestra providing the perfect setting for Queyras’ finely judged playing. The Andante grazioso brings finely sprung playing in all the little variants. The terrific cadenza passage in the Allegro moderato is brilliantly played with Queyras extracting some lovely sounds. There is a superb little Andante, quite wistful, with a lovely conclusion, before the lively Coda: Allegro vivo, which receives a sparkling performance with soloist and orchestra seemingly having great fun. Queyras and Bělohlávek certainly make a great team in this terrific performance.

For the Elgar concerto alone this new release must go to the top of the list alongside the very best. With the addition of the Dvorak pieces and such a fine Rococo Variations, this becomes a most desirable disc.

The recording is first rate, picking up in particularly the low frequencies so well, and all the richness of Queyras’ instrument with no hint of plumminess.

I will certainly be seeking out the Dvorak concerto played by this soloist and conductor on a previous Harmonia Mundi release (HMC 901867).

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