This is the second of Naxos Historical’s recent reissues to
run into fairly direct competition with Testament. The latter’s
Landowska disc faced significant duplication – though at much
reduced price in Naxos’ case – and so does this one. The two
Concertos are common to both this release and to Testament SBT1371,
a release to which I’ve not access in order to compare transfers.
Additionally the Schumann, hardly one of Piatigorsky’s rarer
discographic forays, is on Pearl.
Oddly enough for
all his eminence there hasn’t been a comprehensive retrospective
of the cellist’s recordings, maybe as a result of the greater
concentration on his Dvořák and Walton concertos and the
Million Dollar Trio sides. Music & Arts did good work over
a decade ago with some rare live material and other such performances
have emerged from the vaults – but we are far from a commanding
perspective, as yet.
This Naxos overview
in their Great Cellists series spans the years 1934 to 1950.
The two concertos frame two encore sets, the first from 1945-46
and first released on 78 and the second a 1950 early RCA Victor
LP. The accent here is on native Russian transcriptions of the
vinegary kind, spiced up with accoutrements more associated
with Casals such as the Granados and the Rubinstein-Popper.
That curiously gets a rather nasal reading from Piatigorsky
that contrasts with the older Master’s tonal grandeur. The encore
pieces cry out for subtle colouration and legato to make their
maximal impact, something especially evident in the Rachmaninov
and also in the Rimsky transcription, which has itself usurped
a violin transcription. One can note the perfectly calibrated
weight of bowing.
None but the
Lonely Heart may well be an encore staple but it thrives
on Piatigorsky’s tremendous nobility and his shading, dynamics
and sense of vocal line – a real sense of breathing. The Weber
is dextrously done but rather a bizarre confection and the Granados
isn’t quite as idiomatically incisive as Casals’ recordings.
It’s a pity that the good pianist Ralph Berkowitz is so relatively
backwardly placed – but this was the era of stars and chauffeurs.
The Schumann Concerto
has achieved notoriety more, if anything, for Leon Goossens’
bravo at the end (etched into the wax) than for the performance.
That this wasn’t one of those apocryphal tales can be demonstrated
by the fact that both combatants left behind their memories
of that 1934 session. Goossens claimed that Piatigorsky was
having trouble with the cadenza and multiple takes were necessary
to get it right, which accounted for the bravo of relief. The
cellist always took it as a sincere mark of esteem, adding that
the tension was engendered by limited recording time (forty
minutes) and that the concerto was recorded straight through
on two turntables. Whatever the case may have been his rapport
with Barbirolli, a favourite accompanist of his, is palpable
in this lyric and attractive reading. Whilst Piatigorsky’s intonation
wavers, as it could persistently do, it’s a notable performance
The companion concerto
is the Saint-Saëns No.1 in A minor It doesn’t have quite the
tang of Fournier or Navarra’s near-contemporaneous recordings,
nor is Piatigorsky’s intonation flawless. Recording problems
mean that the orchestral sound is not well blended and inclined
to be brusque though the rhythmic attack is undeniable and there’s
plenty of elastic lyric freedom from the soloist. He’d earlier
recorded this with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Orchestra,
a disc that deserves renewed currency (as does incidentally
the first ever recording of the concerto, given by W H Squire
and Hamilton Harty).
Overall this is
a good conspectus of the concerto and chamber Piatigorsky, nicely
transferred and annotated. I hope to see the names Felix Salmond
and Maurice Maréchal, amongst others, in the Naxos Cello series.