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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra in E minor, Op. 125 (1951) [38.02]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126 (1966) [34.20]
Lynn Harrell (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 25-26 May 2005 (Prokofiev), 27-28 May 2005 (Shostakovich), Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
AVIE AV2090 [72.22]

Both these works for cello and orchestra were composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, whose relationship with these great Russian composers was an important source of inspiration to them. Having already composed a sonata for the young cellist, Prokofiev decided to create an orchestral piece for him in 1951. This became the Symphony-Concerto, but it was not exactly an original composition, since he leaned upon the Cello Concerto, Op. 58, which he had composed just before he left Paris to return to Russia in 1933. That piece had suffered from an unsuccessful premiere, but Prokofiev believed in the music sufficiently to revive it in a tauter organisation of its material; hence the unusual title Symphony-Concerto for the present piece, composed afresh for the young Rostropovich.

The cello still has an unequivocally concertante role, particularly in the first movement, with its quasi-improvisational stance. The finale too is at once distinctive and unusual, being a carefully developed theme-and-variations. Lynn Harrell proves a committed advocate of the music, having recorded it previously in 1994 for Decca with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. This new recording features the American conductor Gerard Schwarz. Their close artistic relationship is well suited to this piece. The opening gesture is particularly effective, beautifully captured by the recording engineers and stirring as a virtuoso statement of intent. Thereafter Harrell tends to be indulgent in his phrasing, attempting to wring every ounce of expressiveness out of the music. Opinions will differ about his approach, but he does succeed in conveying much intensity of feeling.

After the Andante tempo that informs so much of the first movement, the second is fast and rhythmic. Now the technical command of Harrell is the perfect response to the virtuosity of the music, and he is supported by some assured playing from the Liverpool Orchestra. With indulgent portamenti he makes the lyrical passages contrast to the full. Again opinions may differ as to whether this adds or detracts from the experience. The finale ranges more widely in mood and in some respects this represents the most effective part of the performance. The recorded sound is always warm and atmospheric.

Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool was also the venue for the recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2, in fact made just a couple of days later. Dating from the mid-1960s, this piece was amongst the first to deal directly with the composerís obsessive concerns with fate and the transience of life, coinciding as it did with a period of ill health culminating in the first of his major heart attacks. The ending is extraordinary and memorable, linking to the similar imageries of the later Fifteenth Symphony as the clock of life ticks away.

Harrell and Schwarz take a romantically indulgent view of the music, and why not? For it is an indulgent piece, and extremes of tempo and phrasing are not inappropriate. While this may not be the top recommendation in this music (still Rostropovich, surely), it is a generous coupling of two masterworks, both of which are delivered in performances of distinction and personality.

Terry Barfoot


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