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A Tribute to Erling Blöndal Bengtsson: The Danish Recordings 1966-2002
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat Major op. 107 (1959) [28:39]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote op. 35 (1897) [40:28]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Ritorno degli snovidenia for cello and thirty instruments (1976-1977) [24:02]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Cello Concerto (1966) [13:35]
Sven-Erik BÄCK (1919-1994)
Cello Concerto (1966) [11:43]
Niels Viggo BENTZON (1919-2000)
Cello Concerto No. 3 op. 444 (1981-1982) [26:42]
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello)
Claus Myrup (viola)
Royal Danish Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Shostakovich)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt (Strauss), Jan Latham-Koenig (Berio), Miltiades Caridis (Bäck)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Diego Masson (Ligeti)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev (Bentzon)
DANACORD DACOCD844 [69:13 + 76:27]

This two-CD set opens with Shostakovich’s oft played and recorded Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat Major Op. 107 composed in 1959. There are currently 58 versions (including repackagings) of this piece in the Arkiv catalogue.

The scoring is light, with no brass, except a well-used French horn, and only timpani and celesta in the percussion section. The work’s structure is unusual being divided into two seemingly imbalanced sections. The opening ‘allegretto’, which begins with a four-note motif, provides much of the musical material for the entire piece. This is followed by three movements played without a pause. The ‘moderato’ is lyrical and almost romantic in mood. The next section, beginning as an ‘andantino’ and developing into an ‘allegro’, includes a long cadenza or soliloquy for the soloist (unaccompanied). It ruminates on previously heard melodies including the ‘motto’ theme. This leads into the ‘finale’ which is a ‘rondo.’ The last bars of this concerto form a coda that looks back to the work’s opening. I am not sure that harshness or violence dominates this movement: I rather feel that it is sarcasm.

I enjoyed Bengtsson’s account of this work. The first movement is taken a wee bit slower than some versions, but as the liner notes explain, it ‘aids articulacy and orchestral clarity.’ Certainly, the wonderful horn passages come to the fore. The overall impression is of an excellent balance between the work’s intimacy and dark irony.

Everyone (hopefully) loves Don Quixote, his squire Sancho Panza and his horse, Rocinante. I read a (very) condensed version of this story at primary school and have carried this imagery in my mind down to the present. I have since read the full tale! Despite Richard Strauss rearranging Cervantes’s plot for musical reasons, this great set of Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra on a Theme of Knightly Character manages to feature a good slice of the book’s action. The work is arranged for solo cello, viola (played here by Claus Myrup) and with prominent parts for bass clarinet and tenor tuba. The work is structured as an ‘introduction’ exploring the knightly character of the protagonist. This is followed by a ‘Theme and variations’ that present a series of episodes from the story. The finale, alas, is rather sad. Don Quixote is restored to ‘sanity’ and realises that his ‘hopes, fancies and dreams’ have been illusions. It is all too much for him and he finally succumbs to the arms of Morpheus in eternal rest.

The older I get, the more I sympathise with the character of Don Quixote – in Cervantes text, Strauss’s tone poem and several other musical evocations of this character. If you want to listen to this marvellous tone-poem as a piece of absolute music, then that is OK. Just realise that the mood running through this work is one depicting the human conditions: Our struggles in life, our attempts to try to make the world a better place and finally our need to accept life’s end with equanimity. Not at all easy, but we have Don Quixote as an icon to encourage us. This moving work is played with characteristic feeling and introspection by Bengtsson. This is especially so in the heart-breaking finale. Finally, don’t worry about the musical ‘bleating of the sheep’ and the ‘wind’ effects. In the former, Strauss uses extended instrumental technique (flutter-tonguing) in the brass. It is all done in the best possible taste!

The first work on the second CD is Luciano Berio’s enchanted Ritorno degli snovidenia (The Return of Dreams) (1977) for cello and thirty instruments. This work was commissioned by the Swiss conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher for Mstislav Rostropovich and the Basel Chamber Orchestra. The underlying programme deals with the conflict between a Western European’s idealistic view of the Russian Revolution and a Soviet artist’s experience of the reality in the Soviet Union. It has been well summed up as reflecting ‘the composer’s dreams…destroyed by…Stalinism.’ The score is dream-like, seemingly drifting in and out of consciousness. Berio has deconstructed some Revolutionary songs (Snoviedenia) and has created a melodic line for the cello that barely rests for the entire 23 minutes duration. The thirty instruments (sounding sometimes like a full orchestra) provide a masterclass in sonic timbre and colour. The ‘concerto’ was composed during 1976 and premiered on 20 January 1977. This is a heartbreakingly beautiful work, despite the depressing nature of its inspiration. It is a twentieth century masterpiece. I have not heard Rostropovich’s recording of this work made in 1989 with Pierre Boulez. I imagine it would be well-worth digging out. Meanwhile, Bengtsson along with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig give what seems to me an ideal performance.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Cello Concerto was composed during 1966 for the German cellist Siegfried Palm. The ‘structural principle’ of this work is to make it as far removed from a classical concerto as possible. The designation ‘concerto’ is probably an exaggeration. There is no dialogue or opposition between the soloist and the orchestra. One reviewer in The Gramophone magazine reflected that the reason why this work remains less popular than Ligeti’s four other concertos is that it does not attract ‘star soloists.’

The Concerto opens about as quietly as is possible before rising and falling to climaxes of varying intensity. The listener is not aware of the construction of the piece: It appears as a numinous web of sound. The second part (or movement) is more sharply defined with greater contrast between tone colour, dynamics and tempi. It is complex, virtuosic music. Bengtsson gives a thoughtful recital here and is not afraid to hide his considerable technique under a bushel of orchestral sounds. It is almost as if the ‘band’ is disappointed that its skirmish with soloist has not risen to expectation. But look out for the demanding cadenza in the second movement. It is one of the great Cello concertos of the 20th century.

The liner notes tell virtually nothing about Swedish composer Sven Erik Bäck or his Cello Concerto. This short work is hard-edged and does not provide much in the way of relief for the soloist or listener. The liner notes are correct in describing it as gritty. However, in the second movement, an attempt is made to introduce a touch of lyricism. I do wonder if this is a piece that would grow on the listener with repeated hearings? The music is clearly written in an ‘uncompromising’ style that is post-Webern. The composer makes use of ‘pointillism’ (notes made in seclusion, rather than in a sequence) which leads to a feeling of disquiet and unease.

The final concerto on CD 2 is Niels Viggo Bentzon’s (1919-2000) Cello Concerto No. 3 op. 444 (1981/2). Yes, I was surprised at the high opus number! This was to be increased to more than 600 by the time of the composer’s death. The present work is one of 41 concertante pieces in Bentzon’s catalogue. I guess that I have only heard a handful of pieces from his pen, so it is difficult to build up an overall picture of his musical style.

The Concerto is composed in three well-balanced movements. The stylistic parameters are wide ranging, with influences from composers as musically diverse as Brahms, Nielsen, Bartok and Hindemith. I was particularly impressed with the thoughtful, expressive slow movement (II) although the finale has some wonderfully quicksilver moments. As the liner notes explain, this is pure, absolute music: It neither has, nor needs a programme. This is an impressive work that is largely restrained, with only a few climactic outbursts.

The liner notes by Colin Anderson give a brief introduction to each composer and their work. I would have liked slightly longer programme notes for the less well-known pieces here. Bearing in mind that these are all live performances made over a third of a century, the recordings are splendid. Clearly, there are dozens of versions of the Strauss and the Shostakovich in the catalogues: Ligeti is represented by 9, Berio, four. I understand that these are the only recordings of the Bentzon and Back currently available.

Erling Blöndal Bengtsson is an incredibly accomplished Danish cellist who died in June 2013. He was born in Copenhagen in 1932 and enjoyed a highly successful career. He gave his first recital aged four years old. At sixteen he began at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied cello with Gregor Piatigorsky. His academic career included an appointment at the Royal Danish Academy and a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik Köln. In 1990 he taught at the University of Michigan School of Music and in 2006 retired from the academic world.

The Bengtsson estate maintains an excellent website devoted to his musical achievement. It includes details of his life, work and recordings. Even a brief exploration of his discography reveals a wide-ranging interest in music from all periods of musical history. Most of Bengtsson’s recordings have been released by Danacord, whose catalogue lists more than 20 CDs (see reviews of Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3).
John France
Recording details
All live performances
8 March 2002, Concert Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen (Shostakovich)
14 April 1994, Danish Radio Studio 1 (Strauss)
10 October 1983, Danish Radio Studio 1 (Berio)
29 September 1966, Danish Radio Studio 1 (Back)
18 April 1988, Aarhus (Ligeti)
20 September 1983, Idrætshallen, Aabenraa (Bentzon)

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