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The Solitary Cello
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)

Sonata Op.8 for Cello Solo [30.19]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
3 Strophes Sur Le Nom de Sacher for Cello Solo [9.34]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1911-1976)
Cello Suite No.1 Op.72 [20.37]
Oren Shevlin (cello)
rec. 2000, St. Bartholomews’ Church, Brighton, England
Booklet notes in English
CLAUDIO RECORDS CC5046-2 [64.07]

This CD appears to be a reissue of a 2000 release in its original format and packaging, an observation also supported by its illustration and brief review in a 2013 article on this site concerning the Claudio label. On that occasion, it was enthusiastically received by Dave Billinge, singling out the Kodály sonata as worth the price of the disc.

My bearings for the Kodály work, often called the greatest for solo cello since the Bach suites, and once thought unplayable, were set many years ago when I recorded Rohan de Saram live in an unbridled, take-no-prisoners performance. That sense of wildness, undoubtedly fuelled by the frisson of the occasion, has been my yardstick ever since, seeming so intrinsic to the soul of this extraordinary piece. In the intervening years, I’ve heard and collected many versions, including Lluís Claret, Maria Kliegel, Pieter Wispelwey, Natalie Clein and, of course, Janos Starker, although I’ve not heard his 1956 account on Saga, which many hold to be the finest ever, and closest I would believe to Kodály’s vision, having also on occasion won the composer’s approbation.

Oren Shevlin, long-time principal cellist of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, is clearly a very accomplished performer, and delivers Kodály’s masterpiece cleanly and confidently. Apart from the odd stray note (at 6:25 of the opening allegro, for example), his technical address and control are impressive. But while his reading is certainly not lacking passion, he does hang fire on occasion, the final cadence of the first movement, say, a little too perfunctory. In comparison to the digitally recorded competition, Shevlin comes across as more measured, mellow and lyrical, assisted by the kindly acoustic of his ecclesiastical setting. At a broader tempo initially, Clein is more inflected and, if Starker defines the benchmark, more idiomatically accented. Kliegel’s tone is wirier, but with an earthier feel to her playing and a greater sense, to me, of that essential abandon. Wispelwey I find a little over-blown, while Claret, at the swiftest of tempos, conveys urgency but little else. If the other works on this CD appeal, Shevlin’s Kodály can be recommended, but it’s one of those works that, once discovered, won’t be fully revealed by one recording alone.

After the shock and awe of Kodály’s sonata, Dutilleux’s three short pieces in tribute to Paul Sacher bring a more subdued and introspective mood, but as is soon revealed, no less demanding on the cellist, also exploring the full sonic possibilities of the instrument, as variations on the motto Es A C H E Re. While a somewhat less accessible work, one is again left in no doubt of Shevlin’s virtuosity and keen musical instincts. The same could also be said of Britten’s first unaccompanied cello suite, dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, which exemplifies the rough, gritty music of his latterday style. Within the language of the piece, one recognises its variety of inferences, the Spanish flavour in the rhythms of the Serenata, for example, and the droning sounds of the Bordone, emulating perhaps bagpipes or a hurdy gurdy. Shevlin applies his skill and sensitivities to great effect in this multi-faceted, demanding work, and while not possessing quite the authority of its dedicatee’s account on Decca, it has, not least, a more ingratiating recording.

If the combination of these works appeals or, say, you are looking for a new angle on the Kodály or Britten pieces in truthfully recorded sound, these are finely conceived and polished performances by Oren Shevlin that would serve admirably to introduce, or provide an alternative for, these three twentieth century masterpieces of the solo cello repertoire.

Des Hutchinson



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