two concertos, the meat-and-potatoes of this programme fail
to meet expectations. It assembles much, though
not quite all, of Saint-Saëns' concerted music for cello. Steven
Isserlis's rhapsodic approach to the A minor's opening theme
sounds beautiful and avoids overplaying its turbulence, allowing
time and space for a dramatic build-up. He also produces a deep,
vibrant tone as he descends on the C string. But the more inward
second theme (track 1, 1:35) feels limp and inert; similarly,
while Isserlis is properly light in the Menuet, he doesn't
maintain tension in his long sustained tones. Nor is there any
grace or elegance in the busier passages of the Finale.
At 2:34 of track 3 the cellist scrubs away aimlessly at the
accompanying figures, while the woodwind motifs are deadpan
and uninvolved. Indeed Michael Tilson Thomas fails to rouse
his capable forces to much enthusiasm. The engineering is clear
and pleasing, but can't ameliorate passing balance problems.
The violins at 0:50 (track 1) are unduly reticent for starters
and that should easily have been correctable from the podium.
The sound, at least, is clear and vivid, especially with a mild
the D minor, one gets the feeling that the piece itself is the
problem. It certainly sounds impressive, more "important"
than the earlier score. The themes are more substantial, and
their development ventures into expressive territory previously
unexplored by this composer but the music tends to ramble. In
several quiet passages, at least, cello and woodwinds achieve
a pleasing chamber-like parity. At the podium, Christoph Eschenbach
takes more pains over detail than Thomas - note the squared-off
woodwind tenutos at the start of the concerto. Here the
orchestral performance is most persuasive.
the main course doesn't quite satisfy, the extras demand attention
nonetheless. In the booklet, Michael Kennedy informs us that
the composer didn't conceive La muse et le poète, a fifteen-minute,
quasi-improvisatory tone poem, as program music. It was his
publisher who dreamed up the title, which aptly fits this piece
with its two solo protagonists. Isserlis's rich cello tones,
as the eponymous poet, anchor the violin's searching, impulsive
flights as the muse - impersonated by Joshua Bell, no less.
Both soloists inflect their lines expressively without losing
the overall flow. In the accompaniment, Eschenbach underlines
a textural contrast between soft-edged, slightly grainy strings
and crisp, focused woodwinds. The Hamburg venue's resonance
obscures some orchestral detail, noticeably the whirling woodwinds
at 14:02 just before the final climactic tutti. Still,
this reading easily outclasses Laurence Petitgirard's crude
account (ADDA), the only other performance I've heard, on both
musical and technical grounds.
Op. 10 Suite, one of Saint-Saëns' earliest works, will
similarly interest collectors. Its five brief movements pay
homage to earlier dance models. Kennedy makes the obvious, and
logical, comparison to Grieg's Holberg Suite. In the
opening Prelude, Isserlis's solo line - a sort of moderately
paced moto perpetuo, if you'll pardon the oxymoron -
could be more tightly bound: it wanders. But the middle movements
- especially the Sérénade, a waltz with achingly beautiful
cello lines - are all fetching, capped by a spirited closing
Tarantelle. Eschenbach once again keeps his forces in
good musical order. The long ambience militates somewhat against
the intended "Old Musicke" effect - blunting, for
example, the Gavotte's rhythmic point - but otherwise
doesn't interfere with this lightly scored music.
the Prière for cello and organ, a closing bonne-bouche,
Francis Grier's tasteful registrations provide Isserlis with
full-toned support. On the other hand the Blackheath acoustic's
long overhang makes the organ chords overlap with their successors,
making the composer's harmonic language sound rather more adventurous
than it really is!
mid-price, this remains recommendable for the tone-poem and the
Suite. If you're primarily interested in getting the two
concertos together, go for Torlief Thedéen's Bis coupling: he
plays the first with full-toned panache and actually manages to
get the second airborne. That programme, too, offers uncommon
makeweights: the Romance for cello and orchestra, and the
early A major symphony.
Stephen Francis Vasta