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Shostakovich, Elgar, and Bernstein: Julian Schwarz, cello, Christophe Chagnard, cond., Lake Union Civic Orchestra, Town Hall, Seattle, 18.6.2010 (BJ)


It was 45 years ago, which is almost exactly half the history of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, that I heard the 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré make her American debut with it and take the Carnegie Hall public by storm. That occasion came vividly to mind as I listened to Julian Schwarz, about a year younger than his great predecessor was then, play the work for the first time on 18 June.

Du Pré was one of the greatest instrumentalists of her time. Gerard Schwarz’s son, as I have said before on this site, is destined to be one of the greatest cellists of the 21st century. I have heard several great performances of Elgar’s magical concerto, including Pieter Wispelwey’s supreme recording on the Channel Classics label (though it has to borne in mind that recording is not quite the same test as live performance), but I cannot recall one that moved me more than this one.

Partnered with exceptional sympathy and skill by Christophe Chagnard and his Lake Union Civic Orchestra, Schwarz responded superbly to every demand of Elgar’s somber yet inspiriting score. From the massive multiple-stopped chords of the opening, by way of the wistful chains of melody in the Moderato that follows and the quicksilver repeated notes of the scherzo, to the finale’s interweaving of boisterous action with wistful dream, this was an interpretation that will stay in my memory as long as has du Pré’s (if I live to be 120, that is).

Aside from one or two tiny and inconsequential flaws of intonation, did the performance leave anything to be desired? Well, I could say that while, at nineteen, Julian Schwarz has the full measure of the slow movement’s molto espressivo and appassionato, he will undoubtedly in time bring to this rapt meditation a measure also of semplice. Though admittedly not prescribed in the score, that quality would take his interpretation of it from the merely wonderful to the truly unsurpassed. But for now–sufficient unto the day is the good thereof.

The concert began with an admirably fleet-footed and zestful performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, and closed with Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town. Though he was born in France, Chagnard has spent long enough in the United States to become acquainted with the sort of American rhythmic flexibility the first and last of these three pieces call for, and he was equally convincing in the atmospheric central movement: this performance clearly showed Lonely Town to be a relative of Copland’s Quiet City, but with the added élan inseparable from Bernstein’s trademark theatricality.

Bernard Jacobson

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