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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Cello Concerto (1969/70) [25:08]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Tout un monde lointain (Cello Concerto) (1968-70) [28:42]
Johannes Moser (cello)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Thomas Søndergård
rec. 2017/18, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
PENTATONE PTC5186689 SACD [53:52]

Johannes Moser has recorded Elgar and Tchaikovsky (review), Dvořák and Lalo (review) for the Pentatone label, as well as other releases for Hänssler Classic further back in his already highly distinguished career. Moser made Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto a focal point in the composer’s centenary in 2013, playing it thirty times in that year, so his understanding of the solo part and its relationship with the orchestra is rooted in wide and deep experience.

The results here are certainly authoritative. The edgy interactions and troubled narrative between soloist and orchestra are well managed by Thomas Søndergård, but with a chamber-music quality to many sections in the work the conductor often seems to become a self-effacing observer. Dynamics are often subdued, with subtle effects emerging to thrill the intellect, and the “massive confrontation between cello and orchestra” in the fourth and final movement achieving maximum dramatic effect as a result.

The Dutilleux concerto is described by Moser as “a mystical realm of sound”, the interwoven connection between soloist and orchestra more symbiotic than in Lutoslawski’s piece. The virtuoso perfection demanded by the score is tackled head-on in this recording, with both elegant nuance and energetic impact heard with jaw-dropping vibrancy. The French legacy of Messiaen and others – Moser cites Debussy, Ravel, Duparc and Roussel in his booklet note – is never far away, but the expressive sound-world and translucent colours are Dutilleux’s keenly crafted thumbprint in his masterpiece in this genre.

This recording goes head-on with Mstislav Rostropovich’s EMI/Warner Classics 1974 recordings as dedicatee of both of these works, which was made one of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ and certainly a document no fan of these composers should be without (see review). The cello/orchestra balance is closer for Rostropovich than for Moser, the Pentatone perspective giving a more natural sense to the music as a whole, though there is an excitement to be had in being virtually inside Rostropovich’s cello. The same coupling with Christian Poltéra and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen on the BIS label (review) is another strong contender, is also a SACD disc, and has some added solo pieces to tip the balance if extra duration and content tempts you. Jac van Steen gets plenty of colour and character from his orchestra, and you can hear more detail in the recording – for instance the low harp, double-bassoon and other notes three minutes and onwards as the first movement of the Dutilleux becomes more animated. I have the feeling that the Berlin musicians are a touch more refined, but I find it annoyingly hard to come down firmly in preference of one over the other. As far as the soloists go Poltéra digs deeper with his pizzicati, but Moser gets better sustain, and both have their own character when it comes to expressiveness: Poltéra more soulful in the Cantelina of Lutoslawski’s concerto, but Moser more passionate. Jac van Steen is more gritty in the Finale but Søndergård and his Berlin players are needle sharp with those weighty rhythms, while Moser scrubs a bit less in the demanding solo and the acoustic is a bit more spacious and sympathetic in general. It’s swings and roundabouts whichever way you look, but by any standards this Pentatone recording of two of the 20th centuries most important cello concertos is well worth having.

Dominy Clements

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