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Sir Donald TOVEY (1875–1940)
Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1935) [54:16] *
Air for strings** (arr. Peter Shore) [2:15]
Elegiac Variations, op. 25, for cello and piano (1909) [10:11]
Alice Neary (cello)
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
Gretel Dowdeswell (piano)
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 29-30 May 2006.
*First modern recording; **First recording
TOCCATA TOCC0038 [67:04]


Composers have always needed champions – people who make performances and recordings happen, people who are prepared to make their own sacrifices, to cajole, to persuade in the interests of the music they prize. When a composer’s works have fallen into neglect after death how much more important are such champions? I can think of various exemplars. Lewis Foreman, Colin Scott-Sutherland, Peter Pirie, Graham Parlett, Richard Adams and others have fought and won ground for Bax. Lionel Hill, Geoffrey Self, Andrew Rose, Stephen Lloyd and John Talbot have achieved similar exposure for Moeran. The changed and still changing fortunes of Joseph Marx are almost single-handedly down to Berkant Haydin. Much the same can be said of the valuable work of Vardo Rumessen for Eduard Tubin and other Estonian composers. Michael Freeman has been a persuasive and heroic advocate for Holbrooke and Bantock. Malcolm MacDonald (editor of Tempo) has also trodden a lonely and costly path in winning friends, recordings and performances for the music of John Foulds. The list goes on and I apologise to the many I have not mentioned.

Tovey’s star had, in relation to his compositions, sunk into a seemingly terminal slough. This was enigmatically consolidated by Tovey’s success as music author. Peter Shore – distantly related to Tovey – has doggedly fought a long campaign for the music. This has over the last few years begun to bear fruit and new allies including the onlie begetter and owner of Toccata, Martin Anderson. The most recent evidence of the renaissance of Tovey the composer is the present disc but we can also look back on a scatter of articles, recordings and performances that have lifted the music into the light … or at least closer to it. There’s further to go including performances and recording of the opera The Bride of Dionysus and of Tovey’s numerous chamber works; the latter gradually to be tackled by Toccata.

I first came across Tovey’s music through the broadcast of the Cello Concerto in 1976 on BBC Radio 3 by Moray Welsh with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Seaman. I recall that it left little in the way of a favourable impression. Unusual this, as Welsh is an exceptional artist as his broadcast of the Foulds Cello Sonata with Ronald Stevenson reveals and similarly his blazing Glasgow premiere of the unrecorded Stevenson Cello Concerto.

Next I remember disparaging comments by Constant Lambert about the unholy duration of the Cello Concerto. The language of the Cello Concerto is the antithesis of the syncopated sensational spirit of the 1930s especially that espoused by Lambert. For this reason it is no wonder that Lambert did not like it despite hearing it in the hands of Casals. While Lambert was a prophet for Sibelius’s music his verdict on Tovey must have dealt a heavy blow.

When Mats Lidström’s Scottish performance of the Tovey Cello Concerto took place in the 1990s there was talk of that being issued commercially but nothing came of it. Before that Symposium had issued an acetate recording of the concerto from a radio broadcast that took place on 17 November 1937. Miraculously then you can still hear Casals playing the work. This invaluable historic document can be experienced in all its distressed and uniquely valuable magnificence on Symposium 1115. It is sui generis and is not in any real sense competition with the present recording.

Let’s now turn to this fine new recording of the Tovey Cello Concerto. The 25 minute Allegro moderato first movement features much fond and affectionately rounded writing. In the broadest terms this is redolent of Brahms in the Third Symphony and the Double Concerto. There are other transient echoes as well. These include Elgar and in the kindly contours of the solo part the luminous First Cello Concerto of Hans Pfitzner; I do wish that Rohan de Saram’s 1970s studio broadcast of the Pfitzner could be issued commercially. This is heart-warming writing with craggily defiant heroics to match at 7:45 and 11:20. The Andante Maestoso is an anxiety-racked testament which at 4:02 recalls the Brahms Fourth Symphony. The invocation if not the achievement of peace of mind returns with the Intermezzo third movement the character of which harks back to the amiable opening of the work. Then comes the allegro giocoso finale. In its mood this can be seen as a precursor to the Finzi Cello Concerto which across its three movements has a similar character layout to Tovey’s four; not that the language is related! It is however playful in a rustic manner as at 5:30. The Ulster horns play it large, as they say, and have many moments of magnificence. The last few bars make for an inventive and unconventional end with a satisfying mixed stutter of legato, pizzicato, quiet and loud. All in all this struck me as the sort of work that Furtwängler would have loved if only he had discovered it. The warm recording is cogently balanced with space to render many subtle, quiet and soloistic passages.

The brief Air for string is arranged by Peter Shore and recalls the opening bars of the concerto. The stormily Brahmsian rhetoric of the Elegiac Variations is memorable. The work was written in memory of the cellist Robert Hausmann of the Joachim Quartet. It had been Hausmann who with Joachim had premiered Brahms Double Concerto. Hausmann played alongside Tovey on many occasions and the two artists had a glowing and affectionate respect for each other.

Alice Neary makes every note tell in both cello works and each is played as if it urgently mattered – which it does. She clearly relishes the scattering of pizzicato passages throughout the first movement and the engineering team is with her.

If you enjoy the Concerto - and I think you will - then you should hear the Tovey Symphony also available on Toccata.

The Tovey Cello Concerto needs to be heard by all enthusiasts of the late-romantic orchestral world. That it was written in an idiom that was old-fashioned in 1935 matters not a jot. It is fresh, keenly imagined, emotionally engaging and the performance, recording, documentation and presentation adroitly complement this major work.

Rob Barnett

Toccata Classics Catalogue



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