Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 – 1957)
Concerto in One Movement for Cello and Orchestra in C Op.37 (1946) [12:11]
Ernest BLOCH (1880 – 1959)
Schelomo, Rhapsodie hébraïque (1916) [20:55]
Berthold GOLDSCHMIDT (1903 – 1996)
Cello Concerto Op.23 (1953) [20:57]
Julian Steckel (cello)
Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie/Daniel Raiskin
rec. Rhein-Mosel-Halle, Koblenz, Germany, June (Goldschmidt), October (Korngold), November (Bloch) 2009
C-AVI 8553223 [54:04]
This is the concerto debut disc by the young – not yet thirty – German cellist Julian Steckel. Let me say right away I like everything about this disc – a lot! Intelligently programmed, very well engineered and stunningly played by both the orchestra and all importantly the soloist. Clearly there are many fine cellists competing for the attention of the classical music world. Most have bravura techniques that were the reserve of the super-elite barely a generation ago but all too often this can be at the expense of musicality or sensitivity. What impresses and indeed thrills me about Steckel’s playing is the range of colour and emotion he finds in this trio of rather wonderful scores.
It was an excellent idea to bring together on a single disc three cello concertos by three Jewish composers of the last century. Two, Korngold and Goldschmidt, were displaced from their native lands by the rise of the Nazis whilst Bloch, although Swiss-born and thereby protected from the horrors of the final solution at first hand, also left his native land to settle in America. None of the works presented here are ‘rare’ in recording terms and Bloch’s Schelomo is that composer’s most popular concert work. Admirers of the other two composers are almost certain to have these works in their collections too so why buy this disc? The answer is because it is simply that good. The disc opens with the Korngold Cello Concerto in C Op.37. The genesis of the work is well-known; for the Bette Davis film Deception the key love triangle consisted of a musician, a composer and Davis. At a crucial point in the film the cellist/musician plays in concert the composer’s concerto. For this sequence Korngold wrote a six minute mini-concerto which was expanded into the ‘full-scale’ work we have here. Even then it lasts a bare twelve minutes. Korngold had a unique clause in his Warner Brothers contract allowing him to retain intellectual ownership of the music he wrote for their films hence themes from film scores appear in concert works and vice versa. This is a work where the boundary between celluloid and stage blurs to nothing. By having to cram the entire concept of a concerto into such a short time-frame there is a danger that it will appear as all gesture and little content – Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto is surely the ultimate example of that appealing failing. Korngold’s genius – and I am sure he was a genius – is that it works and is satisfying both as music and formally. The first thirty seconds of the performance here tells you that you are in for something rather special. The orchestral introduction is alert; lean and motile but with the sharp tang of nostalgia that is uniquely Korngold. Steckel’s entry is confident, ardent, articulate and superbly projected. At the same time the engineering and production allows conductor Daniel Raiskin to bring out so many telling details in Korngold’s brilliant scoring. The more you hear of Korngold the more you realise what a unique sound-world he created characterised by halos of brilliant harps, keyboards and tuned percussion enveloping lyrical lines of heart-breaking beauty. Listen to Steckel’s handling of the second subject; [track 1 1:20] – this is head-turningly, heart-stoppingly, lump-in-throat-makingly beautiful. As I said, there have been several other versions of this work; I still have a great affection for the first version I knew on the RCA Classic Films scores series played by Francisco Gabarro (RCA GD80185 recently reissued as Sony RCA Red Seal 88697 81266 2), but Steckel is better. Likewise Peter Dixon on Chandos (CHAN9508 or more recently CHAN10433X) and Julius Berger on CPO (999 077 or as part of set of 4 CPO 999150-2) are perfectly good just not this good. For Korngold completists the Naxos version of the film score played by Alexander Zagorinsky is of interest because it is the compact film-score version (Naxos 8.570110-11). There is one last version worth hearing but hard to find because it was on a BBC Music Magazine cover disc played by Frederick Zlotkin conducted by Leonard Slatkin (BBC MM234, 2003). [Not to forget Zuill Bailey on ASV] They are the sons of the cellist Eleanor Aller who played the solo part on the soundtrack and Zlotkin plays her cello.
Turning to Schelomo competition is if anything even fiercer. Liner-note writer Norbert Ely describes it as “a deeply pessimistic work” which I suppose it is although I must admit I had never thought of it as such. Another valid point Ely makes is how Bloch forged a musical language which he describes as coming from an “imaginary folklore”. Indeed Schelomo is soaked in music that seems to echo with archaic ritualistic chants whilst actually being original themes. As with the Korngold it is a work where the cello-cantor-protagonist has to play with an extraordinarily wide range of tonal colour and musical flexibility. Here, as throughout the entire programme, Steckel displays his chamber-music loving roots with playing of rapt concentration and pared-back beauty. I have heard performances which emphasise the virtuosic elements more but if you buy into Ely’s concept of “ecstatic pessimism” then this performance is a revelation. Again elsewhere I have occasionally found the rhapsodic form of the work can give it a loose and discursive feel. With Steckel the sense of directed movement and controlled development is unmistakable. As ever, he is helped in this enormously by the excellent Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie with Raiskin’s unerring sense of pace. Time and again I found myself hearing little flecks of orchestral colour and nuance that I have not noticed before. Perhaps this does not displace my other favourite versions but that has more to do with them presenting valid alternatives. The passage that resonates here for me is the broken lament on the cello after the main central climax of the work [track 2 14:10] – playing of profound beauty and poignancy; “why hast thou forsaken me” in music. Part of Steckel’s particular skill is matching his tone, both bow speed and pressure, to his vibrato – at times febrile and fast and at others wider and slower. It might seem like an obvious way to vary one’s palette but it is rarely used with such carefully considered sophistication as here.
After a brief reassessment in the mid-nineties it seems that the music of Berthold Goldschmidt is sinking back into obscurity. The relative lack of interest is marked by the fact that the recoding of his cello concerto here – just its third by my reckoning – makes it his most recorded work. Steckel is again in powerful company with David Geringas on CPO (an all-Goldschmidt orchestral works disc: 999 277-2 ) and no less than Yo-Yo Ma on Decca (a Goldschmidt concertos disc: 0289 455 5862 2 DM). But he has nothing to fear from either. This work was written in 1953/4 as an evolution of a lost piano and cello work written for Emanuel Feuermann in 1932. The reason it fits so well in the programme here is the way it can be heard as springing from much of the same cultural and aesthetic heritage as the other two works yet ultimately pursuing a more abstract and ‘pure music’ path than the emotional Schelomo or literally cinematic Korngold. The orchestration is sterner, more cerebral than the other two; by no means lacking in colour or beauty but less luxuriant. Likewise the soloist leads a rigorous musical debate rather than riding the passionate wave. All of the earlier virtues of the disc are again evident – beautifully secure yet flexible playing from all departments of the orchestra and the transparent recording allowing the contrapuntal detail of the score to register with natural ease.
I have not mentioned before that I like very much the balance that has been achieved between soloist and orchestra. Given that the three works were recorded at different sessions spread over four months the consistency of the sound is exceptional. After the hot-house emotions of Bloch and Korngold, Goldschmidt can seem to be relatively staid although the second movement Caprice mélancolique is powerful and terse. The inspiration for the work is neo-baroque with an expressionist element that must have seemed terribly contrary to the mood of the times in which it was written. With the benefit of more than fifty years hindsight it can be seen that Goldschmidt forged a very individual musical personality from pre-existing materials and forms. Therein lies another unifying link with these three works and composers. None of them was revolutionary but neither were they anything like as reactionary as they were considered during their compositional lifetimes. The closing Tarantella of Goldschmidt’s concerto has a rather take-it-or-leave-it feel which I rather like – a sense of following one’s own path without compromise.
The format of the packaging is the increasingly popular cardboard gatefold with the liner booklet tucked into a slot of the cover. The liner is in German and English only. Norbert Ely’s notes are brief but good.
This looks like it is a self-promoted disc by Steckel. If so, knowing the time effort and cost of mounting such a project, I hope it has the success and gains the attention playing of this calibre richly deserves. Increasingly players are having to self-promote and I am always sorry if I cannot be as enthusiastic about the results as that kind of dedication and effort merits. But here we have a disc that would grace the release schedule of any major international company and playing worthy of comparison with the very finest. The tiniest caveat is the short playing time at 54:04 but as a tailor would say, “never mind the cost, feel the quality”. Here on a single disc we have the finest version of the Korngold and performances of major works by Bloch and Goldschmidt more than equal to any other. Julian Steckel – remember that name – Bravo!
Julian Steckel – remember that name – Bravo!