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David POPPER (1843-1913)
Cello Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.8 [22:18]
Cello Concerto No.2 in E minor, Op.24 [26:15]
Cello Concerto No.3 in G major, Op.59 [11:42]
Cello Concerto No 4 in B minor, Op.72 [18:32]
Martin Rummel (cello)
Mari Kato (piano: 4)
Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Pardubice/Tecwyn Evans (1-3)
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonie, Pardubice, Czech Republic; Weinberg, Kefermarkt (4)
NAXOS 8.573930 [79:02]

The music of the composer-cellist, David Popper, was once very widely played – particularly during the second half of the nineteenth century. George Bernard Shaw even claimed that, over two concert seasons, he’d had to listen to the composer’s Mazurka several thousand times and, as if that were not enough, Popper’s Papillo was played as an encore every time! This all changed quite quickly and, by the early twentieth century, this fairly prolific composer had been all but forgotten – except in specialist cello circles. Mention Popper’s name to any cello teacher today and there will be talk of his instructional pieces – notably his High School of Cello Playing, Op. 73, a book of forty studies that is still used by more advanced students. Some of the composer’s short showpieces also occasionally turn up in recital programmes and on the radio.

As regards recordings, Popper’s compositions have actually not fared too badly and there is a modest discography, which includes performances of all of the four cello concertos. The second concerto turned up on a Decca LP of 1972 in a well-regarded performance by Jascha Silberstein. More recently, there have been recordings by Jiř Hošek (all four concertos, on two separate CDs) on Music Vars, Wen-Sinn Yang (concertos 1-3) on CPO and Antonio Meneses on PanClassics (the second concerto) – amongst others. Naxos have done well by Popper and not only is the afore-mentioned Op 73 available in full on this label but there is also a recital of Popper’s ‘romantic showpieces’ for cello and piano. Now we get a comprehensive set of all four of the concertos, conveniently packaged on one Naxos disc – albeit with the fourth concerto provided in the reduced version for cello and piano for some reason.

Today’s repertoire has no shortage of cello concertos but one might think that four Schumannesque examples like this, especially compositions of a well-respected soloist and teacher, would figure amongst those being given plenty of outings. So why don’t we know this music better? A listen to the present disc provides all the answers you need.

The First Concerto dates from 1868 and is in the standard three movements – the first two linked. The principal theme is not particularly memorable and does not seem to be developed much before the music diverts off to passagework – a tendency that later becomes all too familiar in the other concertos. It is all pleasant and undemanding enough, but also slight, episodic and lacking variety of texture. One quickly gets the impression that, at this early stage of his career, Popper was more concerned with technical rhetoric and display than with demonstrating the cello’s full potential. The introduction to the third movement Polonaise creates a vague air of expectation but the theme that eventually appears is a disappointingly dull affair. A brief comparison of the competing performances by Rummel, Hošek and Yang in the First Concerto pretty well serves to illustrate the principal characteristics of their respective sets of concerto recordings.

In terms of the soloists there is not much to choose between Rummel and Hošek. Hošek’s timing is significantly shorter (8:14, as against 9:08) in the first movement but there are one or two slight lurches and Rummel sounds in rather better control. Yang is faster still and his beautiful, warm tone is – to my ears - the most listenable of the three. Jonathan Woolf was very impressed with Yang’s account when it first appeared (review). My impression, however, is that the CPO performance’s accompaniment can sound as if it is merely going through the motions and the recording is a bit lacklustre. The same can be said of the Naxos offering and the orchestral strings have some scrappy passages. As regards the Naxos recording, I was also taken aback by one or two surprisingly loud moments in the First Concerto’s first movement tuttis that suggested dynamics were being tweaked by the engineers instead of by the performers. Hošek’s orchestral accompaniment and recording are a little more refined.

The Second Concerto dates from 1880. It opens much more promisingly, with a mildly sinister introductory theme that does stick in the mind. Here the soloist eschews plunging into elaborate bravura and technical display immediately – but it soon comes, including some difficult quadruple stopping. In fact, the technical demands here and in the other concertos are significant (perhaps another factor in the concertos’ neglect) and it is a tribute to all three of the competing soloists that this is not necessarily evident to the untrained ear. As in the First Concerto the music is episodic and, at around 13 minutes, the first movement lasts longer than its musical content can really justify. The lilting central slow movement is a little better in this respect and the third movement has some modestly memorable moments – but this concerto made little impression on me. Incidentally, I noticed some slight congestion in climaxes on the Naxos disc, although this is not much of a problem.

The short Third Concerto, from 1888, is in one movement which is based principally on the unassuming principal theme. It is a more serene, lyrical affair - not without technical demands (especially passages in harmonics) but with much less in the way of extraneous technical content. The accompaniment is pretty banal. Jonathan Woolf enjoyed Yang’s performance of it, but I found Rummel’s slightly matter-of-fact approach uninvolving.

Listening to the Fourth Concerto with only piano accompaniment makes the alternation of tutti and solo passages very evident. The adequate pianist here doesn’t really need to contribute much and I think this rather justifies Naxos’s economy. It is not quite clear when this piece was written but it was published in 1900 and dedicated to the great cellist, Alfredo Piatti. There are four movements – the short (Lento) second and (Scherzo) third movements being linked by a brief cadenza. The rapid final Allegro recalls elements of the opening movement. This concerto is recorded in a different venue but has a similar airless acoustic to the venue for the first three.

On the competing sets, for my taste, Yang is the most listenable soloist but the CPO set only provides the first three concertos and accompaniment and recording are sometimes a bit lacking in refinement. Hošek is less well-controlled but his accompaniment and recording are probably the best. His performances are spread over more than one disc and may now be difficult to find (although they can be sampled on YouTube) but they include the only available version of the Fourth Concerto with orchestral accompaniment.

My overall impression of the present Naxos disc is of good, workmanlike performances from the soloist, with orchestral accompaniments that, in places, lack polish. The Naxos recording is rather dry and could do with more atmosphere, but it is generally adequate – despite the apparent dynamic tweaks and occasional climax congestion noted above. Slightly bland booklet notes are provided in English and German but are in the form we have come to expect from this label – running to little more than a single page. This is a well-filled and comprehensive disc at bargain price and, given that neither of the main competing offerings is without drawbacks, this disc probably represents a fair compromise.

Bob Stevenson

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