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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [28:48]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Concerto No. 1, H. 196 (1930) [26:08]
Sol Gabetta (cello)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (Elgar), Krzysztof Urbański (Martinů)
rec. live, 20 April 2014 Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Elgar), 23 & 24 May 2014 Philharmonie, Berlin (Martinů)
SONY CLASSICAL 88985350792 [55:12]

It was only in 2013 that Sol Gabetta released an excellent recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Mario Venzago issued on RCA Red Seal (review). Now on Sony Classical titled “Sol Gabetta - Live” the Argentina born cellist has released a live recording of the Elgar masterwork from Baden-Baden Osterfestspiele 2014, this time with Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Included on the album is Martinů’s First Cello Concerto, also with Berliner Philharmoniker, now conducted by Krzysztof Urbański, recorded the same year at Philharmonie, Berlin.
Universally admired Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto provides numerous technical and emotional challenges for the performer. One senses that this intensely moving score was penned by a man emotionally scarred by the horrors of the Great War. One reason for the escalation in popularity of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which also provides the biggest challenge to other performers today, is the legacy of the magnificent recording by the late, great English soloist Jacqueline du Pré that has achieved an iconic status. Du Pré was just twenty when in 1965 she took her 1712 Davidov Stradivarius cello to the Kingsway Hall, London to make this now evergreen recording with the LSO under Sir John Barbirolli. Du Pré’s account has been reissued several times and my CD has been digitally remastered on EMI Classics (c/w Cockaigne, Sea Pictures).

Intrinsically there is little difference between Gabetta’s Baden-Baden performance and her earlier Copenhagen account. In the opening movement marked Adagio - Moderato I love the way the assured Gabetta finds an assured mix of nobility tinged with melancholy, with the glorious main theme delightfully formed. The characterisation of each section of the illusive second movement is powerful, contrasting vibrancy with a deep feeling of longing. Gabetta captures an even more passionate yearning in the famous Adagio. Here the high degree of anguish in the writing could easily represent the horrific loss of millions of lives in the Great War. Warmly eloquent playing by Gabetta and the orchestra in the Finale evokes, at times, a scene of monarchy and pageantry reminding me of a Pomp and Circumstance march. Gabetta and the Berlin players under Rattle provide a characteristic “Elgarian” feel to their interpretation.

Containing a strong sense of emotional engagement, Gabetta’s affecting and beautifully played live 2014 Baden-Baden recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto is one that I will certainly return to often. On RCA Red Seal, Gabetta’s earlier 2013 account with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Mario Venzago is also praiseworthy. As much as I admire and love to hear the famous account by Jacqueline du Pré / Sir John Barbirolli, my preferred recording is the intensely emotional live 2012 performance recorded by Alisa Weilerstein and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim from the Philharmonie, Berlin on Decca. With tremendous assurance Weilerstein conveys a depth of searching expression similar to du Pré’s, as if living the music rather than just playing it. Another perceptive account to admire is by soloist Pierre Fournier with Berliner Philharmoniker under Alfred Wallenstein, recorded back in 1966 at UFA Studios, Berlin.
Martinů can stand alongside Janáček as one of the most original and frequently enigmatic composers of twentieth-century Czech music. Although Martinů would often use contemporary methods in his writing, such as neo-classicism and jazz, he was substantially a composer grounded in tonality. He wrote the First Cello Concerto in 1930, both in his birthplace of Polička and in Paris. The original dedicatee Gaspar Cassadó introduced the Concerto scored for chamber orchestra the following year at Berlin. Dissatisfied with his orchestration, the composer subjected the score to two separate and substantial revisions. The new dedicatee, Pierre Fournier, was engaged to give the first performances of both the second version (which is lost) and third version, given in 1939 at Paris and in 1955 at Lausanne respectively. Here Gabetta plays the third version of 1955, scored for full orchestra, which is according to Jean-Pascal Vachon “nowadays, one of his most important works”. It is a work I rarely, if at all, come across on concert programmes. It is not even mentioned in the Martinů list of works in Mark Morris’s book A Guide to 20th Century Composers.

In the opening movement Allegro moderato at the beginning I just love the glowing trumpet part. Gabetta is unwavering, with the generally upbeat and squally character of the writing, contrasted with occasional passages of melancholy. It is hard not to admire Martinů’s quickly moving ideas and broad variety of texture. At times a feeling of rolling prairies is evoked, as popularised by Copland and Grofé, yet the music speaks out with individuality. Striking in the Andante moderato is the sound of the woodwind and lonely trumpet that reminded me of Copland’s Quiet City. Perceptively, Gabetta savours the intense searching and yearning quality that imbues the writing relieved by short and stormy passages of notable passion and power. Overall, the character of the movement and the excellence of the playing make this a genuine highlight. Compelling and intense, the Finale feels like a heated conversation between soloist and orchestra. With its quasi-martial overtones, the writing communicates an overriding sense of spirited exuberance. The well-prepared Berlin players under Krzysztof Urbański readily communicate atmosphere and tonal beauty.

Certainly in the Martinů Gabetta’s performance is more than a match for her strongest rival, the engaging 2015 Berlin account by Christian Poltéra and Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Thomas Dausgaard on BIS. Admirable too is the 1991 account by Raphael Wallfisch with Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Belohlávek, recorded at Spanish Hall, Prague Castle. Another fine recording worthy of attention is bysoloist Johannes Moser with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Christoph Poppen on Hänssler Classics.

These live Sony recordings from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Elgar) and Philharmonie Berlin (Martinů) are both clear, with satisfying balance between soloist and orchestra. However, at the conclusion of each work I find the loud and boisterous yelling which precedes and accompanies the applause totally off-putting, clearly a racket which could have been removed or toned down. In the booklet, the two essays are interesting and instructive, and especially detailed in the Martinů score.

So, released on Sony we have two outstandingly performed twentieth-century cello concertos: an Elgar masterpiece and a Martinů work which deserves greater exposure.

Michael Cookson



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