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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb/1 (1761/65)
Cello Concerto in D major, Hob.VIIb/2 (1783)
Johann ZUMSTEEG (1760-1802)
Cello Concerto in A major (c. 1780)
Sebastian Comberti (cello)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
rec. 28-30 July 2008, St. Judes’s Hampstead, London, England. DDD
CELLO CLASSICS CC1023 [69:05] 
Experience Classicsonline

To commemorate the bicentennial of the death of Joseph Haydn, cellist Sebastian Comberti plays the two cello concertos directing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). It is pleasing that these accounts are given on period instruments using historically informed practice. In this Comberti evidently reflects the modest forces that were typically available to Haydn at the Esterházy court. This release also includes the world première recording of the recently discovered concerto by Johann Zumsteeg - a contemporary of Haydn.  

The two Haydn concertos have a controversial and convoluted history. Each is now acknowledged as authentic Haydn. Although listed in the composer’s thematic catalogue the Concerto in C major was thought lost and only rediscovered in 1961. Musicologist Oldřich Pulkert turned up a set of parts in the Prague National Museum from amongst material previously held in Radenin Castle. It seems that Haydn wrote the score for his friend Joseph Weigl who had been principal cellist of the Esterházy Orchestra.

The Cello Concerto in D major is long established in the concerto repertoire yet its legitimacy has raised doubts. It was only in 1951 that its authenticity was settled with the discovery of a manuscript score autographed by Haydn. The score was intended for Antonín Kraft also a principal cellist at Esterházy.

In the catalogues probably the best selling versions of the two Haydn cello concertos are on modern strings using modern bows from Mstislav Rostropovich on EMI Classics and from Maria Kliegel on Naxos. It was in 1975 that Rostropovich made what is now considered a benchmark recording of the concertos at the Abbey Road Studios directing the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The recording is issued as one of the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ on EMI Classics 0724356726321. Maria Kliegel with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra directed by Helmut Müller-Brühl recorded them together with another concerto in D major, Hob.VIIb:4; a work tentatively attributed to Haydn. Spirited and assured, Kliegel’s performances were recorded in 2000 at the Deutschlandfunk Sendesaal, Cologne and were issued on Naxos 8.555041.

Two other splendid accounts that are often encountered are from Jacqueline du Pré with the ECO/Barenboim and LSO/Barbirolli on EMI 5668962-2 and also from Steven Isserlis with the COE/Norrington on RCA 09026 68578-2.

Returning to the present disc, the playing is technically to a high standard. However, the differences felt stark and the interpretations left me rather disappointed when compared to my favourite versions from Rostropovich and Kliegel. Comberti’s playing felt disjointed and the music just didn’t seem to flow. The dynamics are understated and in some movements I wanted an injection of the zest and spirit that this sparkling writing demands. By comparison to Rostropovich and Kliegel the proceedings generally felt reticent and lacklustre. For me the sound from St. Judes’s Hampstead was also a drawback. The bright recording was too close and didn’t seem to completely fit inside the sound-picture. I wanted a more forwardly placed solo cello and not one almost balanced in with the orchestra. Throughout I was conscious of the rather over-dominant sound of the double bass. This failed to underpin the work as well as, for example, the harpsichord did for Kliegel on Naxos.

I just love the two Haydn cello concertos - both high quality scores especially the wonderful D major. It was however good to have a first opportunity to hear Zumsteeg’s Cello Concerto in A major. Not surprisingly by comparison to the Haydn works it was far inferior in quality. It’s a curiosity that I doubt will feature again on my disc player.

Although I enjoyed this period instrument recording there were several areas that could have been significantly improved. Sadly for this Cello Classics release the competition in the Haydn cello concertos is very fierce.

Michael Cookson 



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