Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (1850) [23:32]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5 (1881, orch. 1893) [5:54]
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-5) [39:17]
Jamie Walton (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. April 2011, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, and Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Jamie Walton, whom I'd not heard before, is a firm-bowed cellist with a dusky, resonant sound on the lower strings, a clear tone in the upper reaches and a reliable sense of style. He's been working his way through the standard concertos on Signum Classics.
The soloist's straightforward, no-nonsense musicality is an asset in the Schumann concerto, particularly in the first movement. There the contrast between the composer's polar musical personalities - the impulsive, proclamatory "Florestan" and the gentle, contemplative "Eusebius" - can pose interpretive problems. Walton, by maintaining the established pulse in the lyrical passages, and projecting them in plaintive rather than conventionally melting tones, produces a reading that is unusually cogent as well as expressive. The Langsam is nicely hushed, though the cello is balanced a shade too far forward for best effect. Walton allows himself more pronounced gearshifts between themes in the vigorous, airborne finale. His attacks on exposed high notes are fearless, and mostly spot-on.
The conducting is a pleasant surprise. This score's atypically clean scoring, and its firm "Classical" line and contours, all play to Vladimir Ashkenazy's podium strengths. Rhythmically alert playing produces a trim, chamber-music clarity even in tutti, while the orchestral sonorities are full-bodied and colourful.
Silent Woods starts out as if it will be the performance of a lifetime. Walton doesn't fall into the trap of excessive breadth, setting a flowing enough tempo to project a long line; the clarinet gently nudges its complementary phrases with a similarly sure sense of direction. Here Ashkenazy's technical shortcomings begin to intrude: he can't control the orchestral textures as they expand. The thickening sonorities impede the forward motion to the point that the piece runs out of gas some minutes before it's actually over.
In Dvořák's concerto, similarly, the more lightly scored passages give Ashkenazy no trouble, but when the textures grow fuller and more involved, he lacks the stick technique, or the aural know-how, to keep them sorted out. The orchestral playing in the first movement reflects a pervasive mild insecurity, which seems to get to Walton, whose intonation in the passagework isn't always dead-center. It wasn't in the finale of the Schumann, either, but the performance worked better, so that counted for less. The opening paragraph of the slow movement is gorgeous - the woodwind-and-horn chorale unfolds sensitively, and Walton does conjure up some melting tones in response; but after the heavy, Teutonic climaxes at 2:52 and 4:21, the movement gradually unravels. The Finale's homophonic tuttis are impressive, if not quite compact, but the motivic curlicues sound anxious and ill-at-ease, the driving passages nervous rather than urgent.
Definitely worth getting but only for the Schumann. Here downloaders rather than disc collectors may have an advantage. Meanwhile, for the Dvořák concerto, it's worth hunting down the classic accounts of Fournier (DG) and Gendron (Philips). Silent Woods continues to be elusive: Ofra Harnoy's RCA account - unfortunately coupled with an inadequate account of the concerto - is one of the best.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

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Masterwork Index: Dvorak cello concerto
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