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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 [28:00]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (Original Version) [18:44]
Nocturne (from 6 Pieces for Piano, Op. 19/4 transcr. composer) [4:12]
Andante Cantabile (from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 transcr. composer) [6:47]
Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62 [6:23]
Johannes Moser (cello)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Andrew Manze
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, July 2016
Reviewed in stereo and surround
Booklet notes in English and German
PENTATONE PTC5186570 SACD [64:46]

Here is a direct but compelling reading of the Elgar Cello Concerto, one that bares the work’s soul without necessitating a dry handkerchief. Its immediacy is in no small part due to the Pentatone recording, closely balanced, but in the warm and generous ambience of the Victoria Hall in Geneva. Listening in surround, it’s a very satisfying wash, with Johannes Moser slightly left of centre and projecting into the listening space, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande layered behind him but not getting lost in the acoustic. It’s one of the best SACDs I’ve heard in this respect, also expunging memories of the often wiry OSR sound in Ernst Ansermet days when Decca, however admirably, made it one of their European trademarks.

Moser couldn’t make a better start to the concerto, the opening chords commanding attention to the music that is to follow. The big tune arrives and ascends to the first orchestral climax which sets the scene for dialogue throughout the concerto; it is dynamic, dramatic and vital, avoiding the nostalgic overload which so often can cloud this work. Andrew Manze keeps to his recent form in providing support that is keenly aware of the composer’s feelings but without injecting his own – the sentiment, you feel, is all Elgar’s. Moser likewise keeps the narrative free of indulgence, the second subject a delicious interplay between soloist and orchestra. The dialogue, much brisker, continues in the second movement, a cleansing tonic before the aching beauty of the Adagio, Moser telling it all in glorious and graceful tone. The finale is the emotional roller-coaster it should be – drama, melancholy, and the return of the signature themes – bringing the work back to its opening statement and, so it seems, perfect symmetry. Again, Moser and Manze just go with the spirit of the music rather than getting lost in it, balancing its emotional thrust with the intellectual force of its creator.

The same approach informs the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and shorter works, clear-headed but sensitive and impeccable musicianship bringing justly satisfying results. For the variations, Moser plays the original version rather than the oft-performed Fitzenhagen edition, which along with reversing several changes also restores their ordering. He’s not alone among recent interpreters in his choice, Jamie Walton on Signum, say, also opting for the original version. Moser’s full expressive beauty is brought to bear on the gentler Nocturne and Andante Cantabile, and if the mood of luxuriant repose seems to be taking over, his quicksilver dexterity in the concluding Pezzo Capriccioso then recalls the second movement of the Elgar, rounding off the programme in spirited style.

So where do the Moser/Manze performances sit? In the top echelon, I suggest, but without displacing any of the other contenders. Great works such as the Elgar can withstand a wide range of interpretation, from the rapt intensity of du Pré/Barbirolli or the cooler but aristocratic Tortelier/Boult in earlier stereo days, to the more recent accounts by Stephen Isserlis and Sol Gabetta, among others. Neither would Moser displace Rostropovich in the Tchaikovsky, but would surely sit beside him, having the added virtues of superb accompaniment, fine sound, and last but not least an account of the work’s original version. As a pairing, the Elgar concerto and Tchaikovsky variations is a relatively common one, but apart from Tortelier’s coupling on a budget Alto CD (not with Boult), currently available competition appears limited* to Jean-Guihen Queyras on HM, who includes two Dvorák makeweights. He uses the Fitzenhagen edition of the Tchaikovsky and his disc, compared with Moser’s, is without the features of SACD.

Bottom line, then: in the top echelon for both major works and, as a combination, probably unbeatable when the sound is also factored in.

Des Hutchinson

*The Mischa Maisky coupling on DG is still available through ArkivMusic and Presto as an in-house reissue.



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