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The American Cello
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)

Cello Concerto Op. 22 (1946) [26:54]
Chen YI (b. 1953)

Cello Concerto Eleanor’s Gift (1998/1999) [15:19]
Behzad RANJBARAN (b. 1955)

Cello Concerto (1998/2000) [29:49]
Paul Tobias (cello)
Virginia Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, VA, USA, 26 Jan 2001 (Ranjbaran); 15-16 Feb 2003 (Chen Yi, Barber). DDD
world premiere recordings: Chen Yi and Behzad Ranjbaran

Further Information about Ranjbaran

This disc collects three American cello concertos in contrasting styles. Two - the least known - were written within years of each other. The Barber and the Ranjbaran are in three movements: fast-slow-fast - across just under half an hour. The Chen Yi is in a single movement lasting about fifteen minutes. The latter stands out in this company in embracing a wide-ranging avant-garde palette. The Barber is typically neo-romantic but then, perhaps surprisingly - unless you know his Persian Trilogy - so is the Ranjbaran.

The Barber here receives one of its most successful readings ever. It benefits greatly from Tobias’s sturdy singing tone. It luminously conveys the impression of amber-depths even when the instrument is called on to sing high in its register - as towards the end of the first movement. What a lovely work it is too! That chanting forwardly-mobile theme in the first movement is lovingly shaped and weighted and counterpointed with a singing ‘release’ melody at 10:20. After a dreamily rhapsodic andante comes a playful chase of a finale which in its lightness of heart reminded me of the third movement of the Finzi Cello Concerto (6:55). As a work it ‘flat-shares’ with the Dvořák concerto and is closer to the juiciness and yield of the Barber Violin Concerto than to his comparatively ‘dry’ Piano Concerto. This is a very fine performance which ‘spoke’ to me more strongly than the ones by Yo-Yo Ma (CBS-Sony), Raphael Wallfisch (Chandos), Stephen Isserlis (Virgin Classics), Ralph Kirshbaum (RCA) and Wendy Warner (Naxos). There isn’t a poor performance among this group but Tobias’s steady ‘speaking’ quality and ardour together with a richly detailed recording image make this truly memorable.

The Barber concerto makes considerable play of the higher registers of the instrument. This is no surprise as the dedicatee and soloist at the Boston premiere was Raya Garbousova who had a reputation for her facility in that region. Barber wrote his Cello Concerto for Garbousova at the commission of the Koussevitsky Foundation.

The Pearl reissue of Zara Nelsova’s recording of the concerto (the first commercial recording) has been reviewed by MusicWeb

The concerto by Chen Yi honours Eleanor Roosevelt’s long and ultimately successful struggle to get the United National to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chen Yi was born in China, in Guangzhou. She emigrated to the USA in the face of the Cultural Revolution. She has studied in Beijing with Wu Zuqiang, with Alexander Goehr and at Columbia University. The cello is in almost constant song: beguiler, protester and persuader. The orchestral tissue moves in kaleidoscopic richness with discordant eruptions (11:30), whispers and breathing effects and a recurrent brass theme that sounds close to the ragged trumpet calls in Petrushka. It’s the toughest work on the disc and requires several listens before it begins to get under your skin.

Ranjbaran began his musical studies at the age of nine at the Tehran Music Conservatory. After graduation he travelled to the USA to pursue his studies as a violinist at the Indiana University. After this he went on to the Juilliard where his teachers were David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Joseph Schwantner. We know from his Persian Trilogy (on Delos - a review will follow) that Ranjbaran is comfortably at home in the tonal world moving seamlessly around a spectrum marked out by Rimsky-Korsakov, Griffes, Dvořák and Walton. In the Thomas Jefferson-inspired Cello Concerto the Russian-Oriental strand is deeply subdued. This work has a reflective but articulate soul giving itself up in song. There is a touching cantorial first movement that also has a euphoric buoyancy of the sort I normally associate with the Finzi finale. That first movement can be played alone with a narration using words by Thomas Jefferson. The lightness of being in the first movement returns for the flighty yet by no means shallow finale. This is music that whoops and dances on its toes with the effervescence of vintage Copland and Moeran. The second movement may be performed separately as the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra and appeared by itself in 1998 again played by Tobias. The concerto is recorded by the same orchestra, conductor and soloist that premiered it in 2001. It’s one of those recordings where you can easily detect how much the soloist is revelling in the experience of making the music speak.

The English-only notes are extensive supporting a CD that is one of the strengths of the little known Albany catalogue.

Rob Barnett



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