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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Concerto in A minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op.129* (1850) (version for string orchestra by Arthur H. Lilienthal (2008)) [22:37]
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102* (1849) [16:14]
Romanzen, Op.94 (1849)# [10.55]
Phantasiestücke, Op.73 (1849)# [11:05]
Adagio und Allegro, Op.70# [9:11]
Mondnacht: Liederkreis, Op.39/5# [3:37]
Frühlingsnacht: Liederkreis, Op.39/12# [1:31]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Niklas Willén*
John York (piano)*# (arrangements by John York)#
rec. 19 September 2013, St Laurentiuskirche, Amthof, Oberdinger, Germany (concerto); 11 April 2014, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK (duos)
NIMBUS NI5916 [75:09]

Comparative versions:
Jacqueline du Pré (cello); New Philharmonia Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (with Dvořák Cello Concerto), rec. 1968: EMI Great Artists 5628032.
Christophe Coin (cello); Orchestre des Champs Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe (with Piano Concerto: Andreas Staier): Harmonia Mundi d’Abord HMA1951731
Try as I might to put all thoughts of comparison out of mind on first listening to this new recording of the Concerto, my immediate impression was that it sounded light-weight and almost chamber-music in scale. The gain in terms of intimacy is offset by the lack of power, itself made all the more apparent by the rapid speed adopted, especially in the first two movements. Paradoxically, the fast tempi don’t serve to impart a sense of forward motion to the music, which sounds even more ruminative than usual.
The other factor contributing to this effect concerns the arrangement employed here. Poor old Schumann regularly receives a good deal of stick from the Beckmessers for his orchestration, though really good performances of his symphonies by the likes of Sawallisch (EMI/Warner) Karajan (DG) and Szell (CBS/Sony) belie that criticism.
Schumann apparently planned a version of the Cello Concerto with a string quintet and, though this never materialised, Raphael Wallfisch commissioned a small-scale string orchestra version of the score from Arthur H. Lilienthal and that is the version recorded here. I’m not convinced that this solves any of the problems supposedly caused by Schumann’s orchestration but it does contribute to the intimate effect of the performance.
The challenge to any performers of the Schumann Cello Concerto is to bring life to an orchestral contribution which has justly been described as lacking driving power and energy and to present the soloist’s part as anything other than meanderings around that somewhat static orchestral base. In the second respect certainly Jacqueline du Pré on my benchmark recording succeeds extremely well, though Daniel Barenboim and the NPO are slightly less successful in giving a convincing account of the orchestral contribution. I’ve owned this recording for some time in its earlier incarnation on EMI Encore (no longer available, except as a download), where it’s coupled with Barenboim as soloist in the Piano Concerto and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau conducting the LPO. The unfortunate downside of that otherwise fine performance concerns the disappointing quality of sound achieved by the French EMI engineers, especially in the Piano Concerto.
I streamed the Great Artists transfer version of the Du Pré recording in lossless (CD-quality) sound from Qobuz, in which guise it sounds better than on Encore, and was reminded of the power of the performance, especially in the langsam sections of the second movement sample here – where she achieves something of the intensity of her classic account of the Elgar with Barbirolli. Partly the success of that older recording stems from the comparatively deliberate tempi – especially noticeable in the first two movements by comparison with those on the new Nimbus CD: 12:22 against 10:43 and 4:49 against 3:54. Tempi for the finale are much closer.
On the principle that one should never judge a recording against any one other, I turned to another recording which, like the Nimbus, employs a smaller orchestra, deliberately choosing one that I had not heard before: Christophe Coin with the Orchestre des Champs Elysées conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, performers more usually associated with baroque repertoire, though here adapting their style to a more romantic approach. That’s available on a budget-price Harmonia Mundi recording for about £7.00 or as a download from in mp3 and lossless quality for $10.13 – at current exchange rates that’s slightly less than the CD and it’s from there that I downloaded it. It’s also available for streaming from Qobuz – here.
Coin and Herreweghe adopt tempi much more closely in line with Du Pré and Barenboim than with Wallfisch and Willén – 12:08, 4:59 and 8:15 – and their interpretation falls somewhere between the two: more intimate than the former but less intense and with slightly less of a sense of keeping the music moving. If you don’t mind the comparatively small-scale solo piano from c.1850 employed for the coupling – the kind of instrument that Schumann would have had in mind and played by Andreas Staier with panache – this Harmonia Mundi version makes a very strong budget recommendation.
Natalia Gutman and Claudio Abbado (DG 4765786, with Brahms Serenade No.1) also adopt tempi for those first two movements slower than Wallfisch and in line with the general consensus: 12:12 and 4:48. The Gutman/Abbado performance was welcomed by Owen E Walton though with some small reservations about recording quality – review.
For balance I should mention one other recording where fast tempi, very similar to those on the new Nimbus CD, are made to work very well: on BIS-SACD-1775 Ulf Wallin performs Schumann’s own arrangement of the Cello Concerto for violin and orchestra alongside the unjustly neglected Violin Concerto, a coupling which works very well – review and Discovery of the Month – Download News September 2011/2.
So, having listened to some of the best of the competition, I returned to Wallfisch and, paradoxically, appreciated some of the finer points of his recording more than first time around. John York’s notes in the booklet make much of the beauty, sonority and singing quality of the music and those are the keynotes of the performance. If you don’t like Jacqueline Du Pré’s heartfelt performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto – my wife is not the only person I know who finds it too intense and her Schumann is in much the same style – you will probably prefer Wallfisch’s more lyrical account of the second movement. To exaggerate in order to make the point, where Du Pré broods, Wallfisch yearns. I have no reservations at all about the dancing quality of the finale.
All the recordings of the Cello Concerto which I have mentioned so far have contained other concertos. The appeal or otherwise of the new Nimbus recording will depend on the extent to which you like recordings which mix a concerto with soloist-plus-piano recordings by the same composer. I have to say that it’s not a combination that I would go for from choice – for that reason the very good new Alisa Weilerstein recording of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, coupled with his music for cello and piano, some of the pieces arrangements, only half works for me (Decca 4785705).
Of the fillers on the Wallfisch recording, only the Fünf Stücke im Volkston were originally composed for cello and piano. If you too would rather keep the orchestral and chamber genres separate, you need look no further than Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon on Hyperion CDA67661 – most of the works recorded by Wallfisch plus an arrangement of the Violin Sonata No.3 – or an even fuller selection on a 2-CD Brilliant Classics set, 94060 – review.
Without making detailed comparison with either of these rival recordings, I enjoyed all the performances on Nimbus, including John York’s effective arrangements of the pieces not originally written for the cello. If I’ve unwittingly given the impression that there’s no energy or passion in Wallfisch’s playing, the Allegro of Op.70 (track 15) should dispel that. Both here and in the concerto Nimbus’s intimate recording matches the scale of the performances.
The booklet notes are frank about Schumann’s perceived shortcomings in the Cello Concerto – more perceived than true for me – and make a good case for some of the arrangements, for example noting the problems that 19th-century horn-players would have had with the legato lines of the Adagio and Allegro by comparison with the cello. There’s an oddity in my copy of the booklet, with half of page 7 blank while the text continues on page 8. Perhaps that will be rectified for the final version.
This is a recording essentially for those who like Schumann’s cello music to be intimate and lyrical. If that’s your preference and you don’t mind the combination of cello with orchestra and cello with piano, the quality of playing and recording would make this an ideal choice. If you prefer the concerto to sound more impassioned, go for Du Pré and Barenboim or if you are looking for a budget-price account coupled with the Piano Concerto, Christophe Coin and Philippe Herreweghe, period awareness without any real drawbacks, would be the version to go for.
Brian Wilson