A Tribute to Erling Blöndal Bengtsson - The Live Icelandic Recordings 1973-79
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85* [26:51]; Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Sonata 'Arpeggione' in A minor, D821 [21:01]; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713) Adagio in E minor [3:22]; Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Rondo in D Major [2:32]; Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Largo (Cello Sonata in G-minor op.65) [3:10]; Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Waltz, from "Music for Children" op. 65 no. 6 [1:40]; Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) The Swan (The Carnival of the Animals) [2:34]; Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) The Flight of the Bumblebee (The Tale of Tsar Saltan) [1:28]
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Pierre Jacquillat
Árni Kristjánsson (piano)
rec. live concert recording, Háskólabío, 4 October 1973 (Elgar); Icelandic Radio Studio, 7 May 1979 (Schubert); Icelandic Television Studio, December 1975
We are highly indebted to Danacord for making these wonderful performances available to the general public. The collection has been released in honour of Erling Blöndal Bengtsson’s 80th Birthday on 8 March 2012. The recordings have never been published before and they were all taped in Iceland in the 1970s. Born in Copenhagen, Bengtsson is one of the truly great cellists. Having studied under Gregor Piatigorsky at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia he is particularly noted for his infallible memory and immaculate technique.
The Elgar Concerto receives an intimate performance, carefully avoiding any hothouse emotions or over-sentimentality. Jacqueline du Pré is the preferred choice for many, especially in her EMI version conducted by Barbirolli, now available in a superb 30 CD box set of Elgar’s works (EMI 5099950360321). For those seeking a heart-on-sleeve approach that is still the version to beat. Bengtsson is less obviously romantic but he has the ability to draw you into his performance. The solo cello is well caught by the engineers and every note tells. The technical assurance of the soloist is masterly but more importantly his musicianship is of the highest calibre. The scherzo is played effortlessly without a hint of strain and the heart of the work – the Adagio – is simply presented and doesn’t get maudlin. The timings for the Adagio are Bengtsson [3:54] and du Pré [5:14], highlighting the difference in approach. Bengtsson’s playing isn’t rushed – it’s just that he doesn’t pull the music around as much as du Pré. Overall the concerto runs for 26:17 in Bengtsson’s hands and 30:00 in du Pré’s. My own personal favourite, André Navarra on Pye (PVCD 8384), takes 27:20 with the central Adagio clocking in at 4:37. Navarra and Bengtsson share similar views on the overall approach to the concerto and the slight detachment pays dividends. I love the du Pré record. It’s a classic but it’s not for everyday listening. I find it exhausting and emotionally stressful.
The Icelandic recording is clear and bright and although some woodwind details are occasionally hidden by the cello, the orchestral contribution is generally good. There are a few very minor slips in ensemble - this is a live concert after all - but at least the audience is quiet and cough-free. It’s a shame that the final tutti goes awry but that’s probably adrenalin kicking in at the home straight. More sanitised studio versions are readily available but sanitised can often be boring. This is a worthy monument to a fine artist.
As good as the Elgar is, in many ways the items accompanied by Árni Kristjánsson are even better. The partnership really gels and the actual recording quality has more resonance and warmth compared to the sound afforded to the concerto. The Schubert sonata is a delight from start to finish with smooth, cultured cello tone especially in the higher register and a lovely, singing reading of the slow movement. One word of caution when I use the word ‘singing’. It’s not just the cello that sings – so does the cellist. The muffled grunts and groans bring back memories of Sir John Barbirolli. It’s a minor irritation and nothing more than that. What is abundantly clear is that both performers are having fun together and the dancing rhythms really do dance. A great performance.
The six short encore pieces are the cellist’s answer to what orchestral conductors used refer to as lollipops. Nothing earth-shattering musically but the performances are magnificent and show a full range of emotions in a display lasting around 15 minutes. There’s some expressive, expertly phrased playing in the Corelli, Saint-Saens and Chopin; Light-hearted playfulness in the Prokofiev and Weber. Finally, there are the insane pyrotechnics of Rimsky’s Bumblebee.
John Whitmore
A fine tribute to a great cellist.