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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No.1 (1959) [28:59]
Cello Sonata (1934) [28:09]
Han-Na Chang (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra
Antonio Pappano (conductor & piano Sonata)
rec. 12 June 2005, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Concerto); 19 June 2005, Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios (Sonata)
EMI CLASSICS 3 32422 2 [57:09]



There being no information about Korean soloist Han-Na Chang in the booklet notes, I managed to work out that she must have been about 22 when these recordings were made. Her recordings of the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante and Cello Sonata with Antonio Pappano on EMI have been showered with awards, making this something of a companion CD.
 
‘Blistering’ is the single word which remained rattling around in my skull after an initial run though of this disc. Chang has a no-holds barred approach, throwing plenty of energy and guts into the most intense passages. Her tone has a wide range and plenty of singing beauty and subtlety, although it does tend to coarsen at full force – a natural consequence above a certain level, but a little more than many listeners will have become accustomed to from most of the greats in this repertoire. This is something which is probably also a by-product of close miking, but against the elegant piano playing of Antonio Pappano it shows up most in the Sonata – one can get used to it, maybe.
 
The opening of the concerto may seem faster than some versions, but the driving quality comes almost entirely from the massive intensity which Chang gives in the opening minute or so. I found myself wondering if she might not have been giving too much too soon, but she just keeps winding the clock-springs until bursting point. There will be those who will question such feverish playing, but I brought out my favourite for a comparison, Truls Mørk with the London Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons on Virgin Classics, and all of a sudden his rich tones seemed rather tame, and the LPO something like a chamber orchestra in comparison to the LSO in full cry. I’ve lived with a number of versions of this piece, including that of one of Chang’s teachers, Mischa Maisky with the LSO conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on DG, which is also quite a powerful reading. No collection should really be without the first, and still one of the best and most moving recording by another of Chang’s teachers, the works dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy in 1959. Rostropovich’s big toned expressiveness is hard to beat. Where Chang seems to explode over the notes with remarkable passion, the old master projects from somewhere deep within: if it’s true soul you are after, here is where you will find it.
 
That said, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Chang’s strength is not only in prodigious technique and blinding intensity. Her abilities as an interpreter are clearly in evidence here, with no sense that the pace or structure of the music is in any way compromised by overly-youthful vigour. Pappano leads the LSO in creating a sound which takes them further into gritty Russianness than one might normally expect. While all of the refinement is present in terms of ensemble, colour and intonation it is as if the conductor and orchestra respond to and reflect the soloist’s drive and intensity. Having played this recording again and again over a number of days the word ‘blistering’ remains, not to be budged, and as far as I’m concerned requiring little further elaboration. Listening to this recording may not always be a comfortable ride, but that was never what Shostakovich was about.
 
The Cello Sonata Op.40, while very well played by both Chang and Pappano, struggles a little to find its own level in this recording. At first I thought it was the balance which was the problem, and indeed I still would have liked just a bit more piano. Pappano’s accompaniment is, to my mind, just a little too understated to make this entirely successful – Chang’s cello just a little too impassioned. As a result the ‘duo’ element is always uncomfortable at crucial moments. Take the opening of the second Allegro movement: the theme is there - just - in the piano, but Chang attacks the ostinati like a demon possessed. 30 seconds in, and the equivalent running accompaniment in the piano is just that, an accompaniment. I don’t underestimate Chang’s skill in this music, I just doubt the wisdom of some of her choices – the ‘blistering’ element is there, but serves the function of shoving the music into your face, robbing it of its joy. The darker Largo shows Chang pacing her build-up of the movement to good effect, her cello singing with heart-rending and tragic weight, but again the delivery at the climax pushes the message just too far – you want to turn away, rather than open all of your orifices and absorb as much of it as you can get. The scrubbing from 0:32 in the final Allegro has a similar effect – a lighter touch and you get more out of Shostakovich’s notes, here it’s like cats fighting in a bag.
 
I don’t want to be too negative about the Sonata, but we’re talking about the crème de la crème here after all, and it does have the feeling of a ‘filler’ about it – which on a 57 minute disc might already seem to be one filler too few. Never mind: if you want your view on Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 altered for good then this is the place to come for that new experience. You may not like everything you hear at first, but try returning to your old favourites afterwards and you’ll soon recognise what Han-Na Chang and Antonio Pappano have done to your conceptions of this work.
 
Dominy Clements       
 
    



 


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