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Great Cellists: Piatigorsky
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Cello Concerto in A minor, op.129 [24:37] (1)
18 May 1934, EMI Abbey Road Studio no.1, London
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1892) arr. Popper

Melody in F [2:51] (2)
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Song of India (from Sadko) [03:11] (2)
César CUI (1835-1918)

Orientale, op.50/9 [02:32] (2)
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Chanson Triste op.40/2 [02:58] (2), None but the lonely heart op.6/6 [02:23] (2)
24 October 1945, New York City
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Vocalise op.34/14 [03:17] (2)
18 October 1946, New York City
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Moment Musical in f op.94/3 [01:48] (2)

Valse sentimentale op.51/6 [02:14] (2)

Romance in E flat op.44/1 [03:07] (2)
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)

Intermezzo (from Goyescas) [04:51] (2)
18 September 1950, Hollywood
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals) [02:35] (2)
Carl Maria WEBER (1786-1926)

Rondo (from Sonata no.3 for piano and violin) [02:25] (2)
19 September 1950, Hollywood

Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor op.33 [19:10] (3)
7 December 1950, Manhattan Center, New York City
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Barbirolli (1), Ralph Berkowitz (piano) (2), RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (3)
Dates and locations as above
Restoration for CD by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111069 [77:58]

Piatigorsky has been bedevilled, at least in the United Kingdom, by a somewhat high-powered, "transatlantic" image deriving, perhaps, from his collaborations with Heifetz, Rubinstein and also Primrose. The outer movements of the Saint-Saëns, which he and Reiner seem agreed to drive as hard as they can, do not belie this view, yet grace and warmth are to be found later on.

A torso of the DvořŠk concerto (just the first movement) survives from a concert given in 1932 under Nikolai Malko and can be heard on Danacord. It reveals a powerful personality and a very free style of interpretation. Yet his only pre-war studio recording of a concerto, the Schumann included here, is quite different; straightforward and musicianly, it failed to capture my imagination. Why?

The work itself is not without its problems. While any pianist dealing in the romantic period is likely to number the Schumann concerto for piano among his favourites, cellists perhaps find some difficulty in cherishing it as dearly as the DvořŠk or the Elgar, and may even prefer the innocent charm of Saint-SaŽns no. 1. Yet it need not sound as bland as here. Casting around for alternatives I find I have only off-the-air versions; however, these did help to clarify a few things in my mind. First of all, a few timings:

Caramia/Celibidache, Naples 1968 23:07

Piatigorsky/Barbirolli 24:37

Navarra/Caracciolo, Naples 1961 24:54

Fournier/Somogyi, Milan 1963 25:21

Mainardi/Kurtz, Rome 1961 25:51

I apologise to readers for discussing performances they cannot hear, though recordings were certainly made by Navarra (with Ančerl, which should be interesting) and Fournier (I wonder if no-nonsense Sir Malcolm Sargent gave him as much space as Laszlo Somogyi?).

The first thing that emerges is that performances do not actually differ all that much as far as tempi are concerned. It is curious to find that the swiftest version is conducted by Celibidache but since the admirable Giacinto Caramia doesnít command the same range of dynamics and nuance as the others (he did some excellent work as a chamber musician), the conductor was probably happy to abet him in a flowing version with a particularly dashing finale.

The next point is that the faster performances Ė Caramia, Piatigorsky and Navarra Ė fail to convince us that Schumann is not on automatic pilot. The extra time taken by Fournier and Mainardi may not seem to amount to much, and yet the former, with his intimate tonal shading, and perhaps even more the latter with his autumnal, dark-brown tone, illuminate so many dark corners of the work and bring them to light.

My final point is that, while Mainardi in some ways penetrates most deeply of all, there is evidence that he is teetering on the verge of the slowest possible tempi the work will take. This is particularly noticeable when the orchestra takes over. Efrem Kurtz loyally avoids trying to move things on, but he sometimes seems to find the textures hard to fill at this speed. I wonder if a recording exists anywhere of Mainardi with his long-term partner Carlo Zecchi, something of a specialist in filling slow tempi?

The impression of an admirable cellist who fails to engage me deeply continued with the encores. Elegantly musical, they fall between the two stools, neither ennobling the flimsier pieces (something Heifetz could do on the violin) nor making them succeed in spite of themselves by sheer charm and personality (the Kreisler way). As Ignaz Friedmann showed, with the original piano version, Rubinsteinís tawdry Romance in E flat can be made to say something, but you have to do far more than just play it neatly and nicely. Tchaikovskyís "None but the lonely heart" is usually heartbreaking, however often you hear it, but here it flows too easily, the dramatic interruption of the climax going for nothing. The Schubert is rather horrible, both cellist and pianist chunkily refusing to engage with the composerís pained lyricism.

I donít want to suggest that Piatigorskyís place among the great cellists is undeserved, but I fear the evidence is to be sought elsewhere. The recordings are fairly good for their age, particularly the Schumann which doesnít sound 16 years older than the Saint-Saëns, so itís no good blaming it on them.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Glyn Pursglove and Jonathan Woolf



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