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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [26:54]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double Concerto in A minor, Op 102* (1887) [33:23]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Cello Sonata in D minor** (1915) [10:59]
Paul Tortelier (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult; *Yan Pascal Tortelier (violin)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard; **Ernest Lush (piano)
rec. Royal Festival Hall, 14 November 1972;* Royal Festival Hall, 17 April 1974;**BBC Studios, 10 January 1959. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42362 [71:59]
Experience Classicsonline

This CD brought back a very warm personal memory. In the early 1970s, while I was a student in York, I attended a York Festival concert in the city’s Minster. The concert was given by what was then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) and most of the programme was conducted by the late Vernon Handley. However, the centrepiece was a performance of the Elgar concerto by Paul Tortelier, which was conducted by Sir Adrian. These two great artists came onto the platform together. By then Sir Adrian was elderly and, no doubt, a little frail. It was quite a long walk from the green room and Tortelier, with great courtesy, gave Boult his arm and supported him gently and discreetly the whole way to the podium. At the end of the piece Tortelier finished with a flamboyant flourish and immediately leapt to his feet and embraced Sir Adrian warmly. His affection and respect were clear to see.

Let me share one other memory of that concert. Immediately before the concerto an announcement was made to the effect that en route from Geneva M. Tortelier’s luggage had gone astray and he “craved our indulgence” (the phrase sticks in my mind) that as a result he would be obliged to perform wearing a lounge suit. How times have changed! To judge by what I’ve seen at this year’s BBC Proms, it seems that nowadays pretty much anything goes in the way of concert dress though there have been some honourable exceptions such as Boulez, Rattle and Haitink.

This Festival Hall performance of the Elgar dates from 1972 and, I imagine, that the sessions for the Tortelier/Boult recording for EMI, released in 1973, probably took place around this time. Certainly Boult and his soloist seem to have a good mutual understanding. Those weaned on the celebrated Du Pré/Barbirolli account may find Tortelier somewhat cool but I think this is no bad thing. In his notes Tully Potter says that Tortelier disliked excessive portamento in the 9/8 Moderato of the first movement and sought instead to play “with the greatest purity”. His playing in this movement is clean yet it has grace and sufficient feeling and I’d describe his approach to the movement and, indeed, to the whole work as displaying patrician passion. His quicksilver playing in the second movement is admirable.

Ably supported by Boult, Tortelier turns in a noble and refined reading of the great slow movement. He exhibits a dignified melancholy and this is a reading in which the heart is not worn on the sleeve. I found it affecting precisely because the reading was just a touch understated. I’m less sure about the finale. Here the performance seems a bit subdued with rather too much held in reserve. That may be the fault of the recording. Throughout the performance, but especially in this movement, I felt the orchestra was placed too much in the background. Did the BBC engineers of the day compress the sound, I wonder? Interpretatively there’s much to enjoy, however. The Poco più lento (track 4, around 6:19) is not slowed too much, something of which I approve. In the hands of Tortelier and Boult the passage is, as it should be, a reflective episode rather than one in which the heart strings are tugged excessively. The subsequent reminiscence of the slow movement is serene and almost withdrawn – here one curses a couple of coughers in the audience! The lightning coda sounds a bit smudged and not quite together – I seem to recall it was a bit that way at York also – as if Boult was surprised by his soloist.

All in all this is a noble performance although some may prefer a more overt approach. The recorded sound is perfectly acceptable, subject to the caveat about the sound of the orchestra.

The earliest performance on the disc is that of Debussy’s brief sonata. The sonata receives a fine performance and though Tortelier is the chief attraction this recording offers us also a welcome reminder of how fine a pianist was Ernest Lush. He contributes significantly to the success of the performance. There is a studio version of this sonata by Tortelier, dating from around the time of this BBC performance – or perhaps a little later - and it’s already available on CD. In his review Christopher Howell was most enthusiastic and though I came across his review only after I’d completed my listening to this BBC Legends account it’s impossible not to concur with his view that “Tortelier is master of the wide range of moods which Debussy’s pithy little masterpiece encompasses, from infinite sadness to fierce exultation, and again reveals the humanity of a work which can seem more elusive in other hands.” The recorded sound on this BBC CD is, perhaps inevitably, a little dry and close but to say that the recording is nearly fifty years old it’s remarkably good.

We return to the Festival Hall for a 1974 performance of the Brahms Double Concerto in which Tortelier was joined by his son, Yan Pascal Tortelier, who was plying his trade in those days as a violinist rather than as a conductor. I suppose I should come clean and say that although I love the music of Brahms this particular concerto is not a favourite work. In fact I regard it as the weakest of his four concertos, the beautiful slow movement notwithstanding. This present performance is enjoyable and Pritchard conducts well – the orchestra is much more satisfactorily balanced than was the case in the Elgar.

However, one drawback must be noted. Tortelier fils plays well but he’s a very good violinist while his father was a very great cellist. When the two play together it’s Tortelier père who comes across as the stronger musical personality. Brahms’s writing in this concerto is such that one must have two well-matched soloists to effect a proper balance and I don’t feel that’s quite achieved all the time during this performance. That said, both soloists deliver some lovely singing lines in the slow movement, supported by some very good, mellow playing from the BBC orchestra. I can never really warm to Brahms in jovial vein – joviality doesn’t seem his natural mien - and the finale to this concerto is no exception. But all concerned combine to give a lively and spirited reading of the movement.

This disc offers an excellent reminder of the artistry of Paul Tortelier and despite one or two reservations I enjoyed it very much. I hope there may be more Tortelier performances to come from the BBC archives.

John Quinn


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