Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Concerto Ballata, Op. 108 (1931) [20:44]
Chant du menestrel, Op. 71 (1900) [3:39]
Melodie, Op. 20, No. 1 (1888) [7:15]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Concertino, Op. 132 (1953) [19:14]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nocturne, Op. 19, No. 4 (1873, arr. 1888) [4:57]
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (1876) [17:51]
Jamie Walton (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Okko Kamu
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, 2013. DDD

If I were concerned only with the performances and recording, I could recommend this disc to all lovers of cello music. However, with the exception of the Tchaikovsky, I find the music on this programme to be quite vacuous. Nearly half of the disc is devoted to Glazunov, whose works generally strike me as being like Tchaikovsky without the tunes. The Concerto Ballata begins well enough with a gorgeous cello theme, but then meanders with utterly forgettable themes. It becomes boisterous later on and the ending is overdone and really trite. Glazunov composed the piece in 1931 - that’s not an error in the headnote - while it sounds more like 1881. One of the few works of his that appeal at all to me is his Violin Concerto, which resembles this one to some extent — though that one contains some memorable themes. The best of his works here is the shortest, the Chant du menestrel, which has been recorded by Rostropovich. It is simple and songful, even if Tchaikovsky isn’t far away, and receives eloquent advocacy from Jamie Walton. The Melodie, which is more than twice as long, is melancholy and has a sweetness about it that soon becomes cloying, though it contains nice flute and horn solos.

The problem with Prokofiev’s Concertino is that he composed it too late in life, as he began it shortly after his Seventh Symphony. He did not live long enough to complete the work. It was finished by Rostropovich and Kabalevsky from Prokofiev’s piano score and Rostropovich’s memory on how the piece would end based on conversations with the composer. It begins dark and dour and becomes bombastic before the first movement concludes with thunderous chords. The second movement is better with its lyrical and wistful theme on the cello accompanied by woodwinds and strings. The third and final movement, marked Allegretto, borrows its main theme from the composer’s earlier Cello Concerto and Sinfonia concertante and begins the theme lightly on the bassoon. However, it soon becomes bombastic with a march-like passage and the ending sounds tacked on. Apparently this ending was the work of Rostropovich and Kabalevsky. The work is clearly not out of Prokofiev’s top drawer and is far weaker than his earlier Cello Concerto. Walton and the orchestra do all they can for it.

The rest of the programme is devoted to Tchaikovsky, and with the five-minute Nocturne one experiences an altogether higher level of inspiration. Tchaikovsky arranged it for orchestra from his Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 19, this being the fourth of the set. The Nocturne contains one of his wonderfully sad melodies on the cello with discreet accompaniment by winds and strings. The music could have come from Swan Lake or the First Piano Concerto and is beautifully played here.

The chief reason, though, to hear this CD is for the original version of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. As is quite well known, Tchaikovsky composed the work for the cello professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Fitzenhagen suggested a number of alterations and re-arranged the variations, which Tchaikovsky begrudgingly accepted. The professor even cut one of the variations altogether, but kept the introduction and first variation and the final coda in their original order. This “revised and corrected” edition of the work has been the one most performed by cellists even to this day. It’s clearly a fine edition itself and structurally makes good sense, but it is not as Tchaikovsky envisioned it. His original is every bit as good and has been recognized as such in recent times. Walton performs it splendidly with a light touch that the Royal Philharmonic under Okko Kamu accompany hand-in-glove. They capture the neo-classical essence of the piece very well, and the recording is vibrant.

Signum Classics have contributed a first-rate production with thorough notes and an attractive presentation. If one is seeking a fine recording of the Tchaikovky don’t hesitate, but I can’t say that I shall be listening to the rest of the programme anytime soon.

Leslie Wright


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