There’s a strongly bipartite element to the programming here. Popper’s easy-going, lyrical Romantic charm is pitted against Piatigorsky’s wizardly virtuosity in his Variations on a Paganini Theme. Both were executants of high renown and Popper was the better known as an executant-composer. But Piatogorsky’s transcriptions, arrangements and original works – as here - are well deserving of perpetuation, as this disc amply demonstrates.
Popper’s Suite Op.69 is an extensive four movement affair, not far short of half an hour in length. Its opening has genial warmth, finely calibrated by the excellent Warner-Buck duo, but for all its wistful charm even playing such as this can’t disguise the occasional thinness of invention. There’s a modest Menuetto and then a Ballade which takes the cello to the depths of its compass and then gets progressively more passionate in a burnished bloom of introspection. The freewheeling finale gives the cellist plenty of opportunities to explore left and right hand strengths, though the music as such is not especially distinguished.
Earlier Popper had written his Three Pieces Op.11. It would be interesting, musically and biographically, to know exactly when all these works were written but such information seems to be lacking. There are expressive peaks for both instruments in Widmung, the first of the three, and there’s a puckish Humoreske with a nice cadential end. The Mazurka is engagingly strenuous.
Im Walde consists of six nature scenes. Schumann is evoked in the forestry of all this, and also, to a degree – as in the Gnomentanz – Liszt. This is an atmospheric opus, rich on evocative and suggestive writing, and narrative suggestibility. Reigen, the fourth of the set, was something of a favourite among cellists of Olden Times; W.H. Squire used to programme it regularly. You can see why; it’s an invigorating Round Dance. The set is hugely satisfying all-round. Nothing is over-extended, as the Suite sometimes is, and everything has great character.
Piatigorsky’s Variations (on that theme) represent a big jump to the world of high-wire mid-twentieth century Russian virtuosity. The theme is followed by fourteen variations, each dedicated to a named musician, and to conclude a March, dedicated to Horowitz. The notes do very well to present Piatigorsky student Denis Brott’s identification of each variation to each eminent colleague. Though the variations can be as little as thirty seconds in length they are fascinating. Variation 1 is Casals – slow and meditative – whilst 2 is a frantic Hindemith. Variation 5 is irascible Felix Salmond, here unusually stately and warm (was this an in-joke?) whilst Szigeti gets a contemplative variation. Milstein, like Morini, is the subject of a fleet, almost moto perpetuo variation. Kreisler is all charm and elegance. Piatigorsky’s own self-portrait is a wrist-cruncher, whilst Cassadó gets saucily imbued Spanish rhythm. He reserves big tonal weight for Mischa Elman and unremitting chromatic demands for his colleague Heifetz before the Horowitz March – truly thrilling – brings things to a virtuosic conclusion.
The clement pastoral and wistful pleasures of the Popper, then, are counter-balanced by the panache and extrovert self-confidence of Piatigorsky. The warm recorded sound and terrific performances bring everything to life quite spectacularly.