Prague-born David Popper achieved eminence early. He was still in his
teens when he performed with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and it was
at Hans von Bülow's suggestion that he was appointed the solo cellist of the
Vienna Court Opera in 1868. As with many leading soloists of the time he
also composed and it was during this prestigious engagement in Vienna that
he wrote his first Concerto, Op.8. Rather like his distinguished colleague
the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, who a decade later wrote his own first Cello
Concerto, Popper impatiently pitches the cello immediately into the fray.
Richard Eckstein's booklet notes are commendably honest about this
concerto's occasional limitations - gaucheries of construction for one - and
about the profusion of material which never quite manages to develop
ideally. Popper's concern here seems to be to alternate lyrical material
with contrasting scampering passagework. Clearly in the hands of a ripe
nineteenth-century player the tension generated between legato lyricism and
technical virtuosity would have been sufficient, but even with the best
possible advocacy - such as it receives here from Wen-Sinn Yang - little can
be done to minimise such flaws. Yet the slow movement, rather Schumannesque,
is attractive with some nice wind writing and the finale is even better.
Unbuttoned and unfettered by the need to live up to a technical reputation
Popper leads us back to Bohemia. There is some surprisingly proto-Dvořákian
material and some rich rustic passages. This is a concerto that gets better
and better as it goes on, so don't be disheartened if you feel the opening
something of a disappointment.
By 1880 he was writing music significantly more sophisticated than he had
in his mid-twenties. Phrases in the Concerto of 1880 have more breadth than
before, where they tended to be somewhat foursquare. An enthusiasm for
Wagner seems to have entered Popper's musical thinking, as well as an
increased mastery of orchestration. Technical virtuosity is subsumed in the
body of the musical argument, not knowingly used as an end in itself.
Passagework is deft and there's a real vocalised quality to the melodic
writing. With a richly textured slow movement, the music emerges as a kind
of aria-reverie, commendably demonstrated by the excellent Yang and his
sympathetic collaborator Niklas Willén who directs the WDR Orchestra
Cologne. Despite a few, perhaps forgivable technical excursions - the
nineteenth-century cellist was allowed to mark his accomplishment here - the
finale is fresh, confident and surges with a March theme that enlivens and
thrills. The Third Concerto followed in 1888 and what a difference we
encounter. It's only ten or so minutes long, cast in a single movement, and
written for a smaller orchestra than is the case with No.2. Supposedly
written for a private event, this is a much more essentially lyrical work
than its companions, being largely shorn of extraneous gestures. The lyric
moments themselves are delicious. There is a touch of percussion overload in
the tuttis in this performance.
Antonio Meneses has recorded No.2, coupled with the famous Op. 50 Suite,
for Pan Classics, a disc I've yet to hear but in presenting all three
concertos on the one disc, Yang is staking a central place in the
discography of these works. Originally broadcast by WDR, these fine studio
tapes, with the cello spectrum quite forwardly balanced, offer still unusual
fare in excellent performances.