Adrien François SERVAIS (1807-1866)
Souvenir de Spa; Fantaisie for cello and orchestra Op.2 (1844) [17:15]
Fantaisie et Variations brillantes sur la Valse de Schubert Op.4 (1844) [15:12]
Grande Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’Opéra ‘Le Barbier de Seville’ Op.6 (1847) [13:55]
Cello Concerto in B minor Op.5 (1847) [23:16]
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Munich Radio Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. BR, Studio 1, November 2009
CPO 777 542-2 [70:10]

“The greatest artist on the violoncello produced in our century” was the headline in a Cologne newspaper when the death of Adrien François Servais was announced in 1866. His place in history mainly now relates to his pedagogic works, to his revolutionising of cello technique and also to his invention of the metal endpin. One can surmise that he was the first cellist exclusively to use an endpin and we can clearly see it – it looks rather bulky – in the c.1862 photograph reprinted in the booklet. It would be interesting to know more about this and other matters, but whilst the booklet notes are succinct, they devote rather too much time to an anecdote by Pablo Casals’.

Like most virtuosi Servais was also a composer. We have four works in this disc, all in single opus number and written when Servais was between 37 and 40, and presumably at the height of his instrumental powers and the apogee of his trans-European fame. The earliest is the scene of that Casals story, the Souvenir de Spa Op.2. This fantasia has a succession of attractive aria-like melodies as well as quite plump virtuosic episodes, wrist-testing in the extreme in the octave passages. The orchestra is used at paragraphal points to add necessary ballast but otherwise Servais’s orchestration is light, discreet and not of great distinction. It’s a vehicle for cellistic bravura.

The Fantaisie et Variations brillantes sur la Valse de Schubert was written in the same year. Here he does at least contrast lower strings with high winds, managing to expand the sonic and timbral possibilities of the accompanying figures. But the demands for the soloist remain exceptionally tricky, though he is allowed the meditative reprieve of a mulling and warmly attractive Andantino section before the fast fingering and stretch difficulties of the finale section. The Barber of Seville Fantasy is a real old pot boiler, with flashy glissandi and all manner of virtuoso tricks The utilitarian brass-wind-strings approach to the accompanying orchestral vocabulary keeps things in perspective whilst the cellist dances merrily on.

Of more significance is the Cello Concerto of 1847. The orchestral opening is amongst the most interesting, harmonically, that Servais wrote, and the cello’s introduction finds the solo instrument essaying a nicely angular line and even a rather suave approach. There’s a chance to display tonal beauty in the central movement, and Wen-Sinn Yang takes these opportunities eagerly, showing a good grasp of the quasi-operatic elements of the writing too, not least its vocalised roulades. The finale reverts to type; tricky, tricksy, punctuated by basic orchestral tutti and with plenty of fillips. The Schumann Concerto it is not.

The performances are fluent and intelligent, and the recording is very satisfactory. A lot of this disc is typically mid-nineteenth century and flashy; an instrumentalist-composer pushing the boundaries of the then virtuosic level of excellence expected of his instrument. Much is couched in Paganinian gymnastics, served up in cod-opera and operatic paraphrase. But Servais can also be sensitive and he has a gift for a certain thoughtful repose amidst the fireworks. He’s also an important staging post for cellists, so this release stakes a good claim on these grounds alone.

Jonathan Woolf

Sensitive and with a gift for thoughtful repose amid the fireworks.