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Danish First Performances: Erling Blöndal Bengtsson
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Concerto for cello and orchestra (1921) [25:02]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphony for cello and orchestra, op.68 (1963) [34:41]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for cello and orchestra (1969-70) [26:14]
Benjamin BRITTEN
Solo Cello Suite no.2, op.80 (1967) [19:14]
Solo Cello Suite no.3, op.87 (1971) [19:50]
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Meredith Davies (Delius); Copenhagen Philharmonic/Okko Kamu (Britten), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt (Lutosławski)
rec. live concert, Danish Radio Concert Hall, 8 March 1976 (Delius); live concert, Tivoli Concert Hall, 6 February 1991 (Britten Symphony); live concert, Danish Radio Concert Hall, 10 June 1979 (Lutosławski); Odd Fellow Palace, 29 March 1987 (Britten Suite no.2); Danish Radio Concert Hall, 19 April 1977 (Britten Suite no.3)
DANACORD DACOCD770 [60:02 + 65:56]

Danacord have promoted the artistic legacy of cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (1932-2013) with an extensive series of discs across the entire range of the cello's repertoire. The particular value of this current two CD set is that it introduces recordings of the Danish premieres of all the music given here. The master-tapes are sourced from Danish Radio and generally they are very good sonically. Perhaps a little over spot-lit on occasion with a slightly compressed dynamic range as is necessary for an FM carrier wave. When the volume is turned up there is a fair amount of tape hiss too. Also, the audience is occasionally but distinctly audible with applause retained. I get these comments out of the way immediately simply because I know that for some collectors these are considerations that will impact on their buying choices.

Putting that to one side the music-making and musicianship are of the very highest order. Disc 1 opens with the Delius concerto. Even under the experienced guidance of Meredith Davies this is an elusive idiom for both audience and orchestra. The accusation of meandering is the one always laid at Delius' door and this concerto is dangerously prone to it. The large bulk of the twenty-five minute single movement work is rhapsodic and in lesser hands than the ones here it can wander. I am very impressed by the balance Blöndal Bengtsson finds between the rhapsodic and the ardently rapturous. He uses a slightly fast almost febrile vibrato which gives an implied urgency to his playing much to the work's benefit. This work remains relatively under-recorded. Aside from a young Du Pré in her first concerto recording Warner/EMI - I think - Wallfisch on Warner/EMI in Liverpool, Lloyd-Webber with Handley on RCA and a recent Watkins version on Chandos [the only one I have not heard] this is just the work's fifth CD release. Listening to these other versions again I have to say they all are very fine. Perhaps the presence of an audience encouraged Blöndal Bengtsson to a greater degree of urgency and attack but this is without sacrificing lyricism either. Fine expressive and sensitive playing from the Danish Orchestra serves to underline how good Meredith Davies was as a conductor. I wonder if Blöndal Bengtsson ever returned to this work or indeed to any of Delius' compositions with cello - I hope so.

The remainder of the first disc is from 1991 and is of the craggy Britten Cello Symphony. I do find it slightly remarkable that such a major work took nearly 30 years to cross the North Sea. Again, Blöndal Bengtsson's dynamic yet expressive approach works very well indeed. The recording here is more sophisticated with greater depth and warmth in the orchestral parts. As with the Delius, the level of Blöndal Bengtsson's technical security and musicality in concert is very marked. With Britten's cello works, the benevolent spirit of Rostropovich hangs over the music. Hard not to hear his recordings as at least interpretative benchmarks against which any other performance must be measured but again this current version proves to be strikingly individual and wholly effective. There are very minor fluffs in ensemble and execution but these are far outweighed by the impressive overall vision. As the last of Britten's concertante works I have never found it as easy to assimilate as his earlier pieces in the genre. By the early 1960s Britten was exploring more musically challenging avenues. The catalogue contains many more versions of the work and I am familiar with few of them so I cannot make direct comparison. However, heard in its own right this is another impressive and wholly enjoyable performance - again with fine and dedicated orchestral accompaniment this time with Okko Kamu conducting.

The second disc opens with the 1979 premiere - just nine years after the work's composition - of Lutosławski's Cello Concerto with another fine conductor Herbert Blomstedt on the stick. This work is again a single movement of around twenty-five minutes and opens with a 'ticking clock' of repeated Ds from the soloist. Rather marred in spectacular fashion here by shushing and some whispered conversation from the audience. Fortunately Blöndal Bengtsson is utterly unphased by this obbligato vocalisation. Again the technical security allied to musical conviction is an enduring impression of the playing. This is not a work I know at all well and I find Blöndal Bengtsson's skittish playfulness of the extended opening solo very impressive indeed. He finds both humour and something slightly more disturbing - it is easy to understand why this work has carved out a place in the repertoire. The schizophrenic brass writing and ghostly scampering string pizzicati seem to imply something more than the absolute music Lutosławski insists the work is. For a live recording the engineers have managed the layers of soloist, domineering brass and the flickering shadowy orchestral textures remarkably well.

The binding figure on these discs is the soloist with the juxtaposition of Delius at his most lyrical and Lutosławski fragmented, strangely alienatory, seemingly unlikely disc-fellows. I find it hard to imagine them ever being programmed together except here yet I must admit to finding the very extremes of their styles fascinating in this context. Aside from Blöndal Bengtsson's presence another element of continuity is the excellence and conviction the orchestra's playing. Again, momentary lapses of ensemble in such a complex work pale alongside the sheer theatricality of this performance.

At around the halfway point in the work around the 13:00 mark the solo part emerges from the spiky disjointed writing to suddenly launch on an extended lyrical line over hazy string accompaniment. As in the Delius, Blöndal Bengtsson finds a beautiful intensity and projection that gives a Romantic febrile ardour to this haunting passage. The compositional skill is in the pacing of this section and indeed the whole work. This a substantial span of music without a break. After a five minute 'slow movement' the raucous brass intrude again with panicking string figurations and for the only time in the work the soloist remains silent. This is genuinely cacophonous and only stops for interjections from the soloist. There is a sense of impending catastrophe in the final section of the work which the soloist struggles to prevent right up to end which leaves him repeating a note - now in the highest register - much as the work began. Again, the catalogue features multiple versions including a famous first recording by Rostropovich - again the work's dedicatee - but in its own right this is a valuable musical document.

The set concludes with two of the three Britten Suites for solo cello. Heard as a solo instrument - very well caught indeed in a pleasing acoustic by the Danish Radio engineers - the range of tone and beauty and fluency of Blöndal Bengtsson's playing is very striking. Add to that remarkable accuracy an unfailingly pleasing sense of musical line and these are very impressive performances indeed. The liner goes on to note at least another seven Danish premieres of important concertos from Elgar to Shostakovich as well as commissions from at least ten other major contemporary composers. This serves to underline his commitment to the creation of an enduring body of new work as well as the promotion of lesser known - in Denmark at least - existing masterpieces.

This set is intended as a document of a legacy. As such it serves as superb testimony to the quality and range of Erling Blöndal Bengtsson's considerable artistry. At first glance what seems as if it might be something of a mish-mash of repertoire coheres together in the vision and skill of this very fine cellist. A minor shame is that the liner is not more detailed either regarding the music or the artist. The English-only note is brief - but interesting - however I would have enjoyed more insight into Blöndal Bengtsson's approach to the works. However, the music is the thing and here we are in the safest and most insightful of hands - if hands can be such things - backed up by excellent orchestral support where required and engineering that ranges from good to very good. A box of delights.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John France

Other reviews of Erling Bengtsson on Danacord
DACOCD724 - The Live Icelandic Recordings 1973-79
DACOCD727 - The Early Danish Recordings: 1955-59
DACOCD737 - Walton & Khachaturian concertos
DACOCD738 - Complete HMV Solo Recordings 1950-1961
DACOCD740 - Tribute - Volume 3


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