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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (original version, 1876) [20:28]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1894-5) [41:26]
Sandra Lied Haga (cello)
State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia 'Evgeny Svetlanov'/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, February-March 2019
SIMAX PSC1363 [61:57]

Too casual a glance through the disc booklet might suggest that the featured soloist is an eight-year-old prodigy. But no: although Sandra Lied Haga began as a prodigy -- whence the girlhood photos -- she's now an accomplished full-grown cellist. I didn't immediately warm up to her, though: her tone, while vibrant and polished, is comparatively lean, and seems at first to lack distinction. Gradually, however, her expressive cantabile. splendid rhythmic address, and shapely phrasing of the various flourishes won me over. And, as the writing descends to the C string, her tone expands into a gratifying warmth and depth.

Once past the wilting sentimentality of the opening gestures, Tchaikovsky's score is colourful and effective, though I don't hear anything particularly "Rococo" about his theme. Haga offers a characterful performance, approaching the triplet passagework and other virtuoso challenges with real zest. She's poised and steady in the Andante's breathtaking harmonics; soloist and orchestra are so assured that the rapid variation that follows never feels hyperactive. In the Allegro moderato, the soloist accompanies the flute solo with a flawless series of rising trills. She maintains the gravitas of the lighter passages, and times the pauses to evoke dramatic anticipation. The ending scampers delightfully.

The Dvořák begins strongly, until the arrival of the horn theme: it comes almost to a halt, and is pulled out of rhythm, besides. It foreshadows Haga's own treatment of that theme, and it doesn't work any better when she does it. The rest of the movement is less mannered; still, every change of mood somehow feels heightened and abrupt.

The remainder left me in a state of delighted awe. The woodwind chorale at the start of the Adagio sings solemnly -- Czechs might have been simpler and more plaintive -- and Haga is fluent and sensitive: only the coda's rubatos sound stiff and unspontaneous. The finale begins at a steady tread; Haga "plays through" the first theme, articulating it less crisply than most. Similarly, the second subject's clarinet countertheme registers in a long arc rather than as a series of segments.

The 'Yevgeny Svetlanov' Orchestra plays far better for Terje Mikkelsen than they used to for their namesake in his day. The strings are more tapered, less shaggy than before -- portentous bass pickups in Dvořák's introduction briefly suggest the older style. The woodwinds, individually and as a choir, are delicious -- note the nuanced clarinets and delicate, fragile oboe in Dvořák's Adagio -- and the brass have shed the pushed, unmatched vibratos of yesteryear. I just wish Mikkelsen had been a less conscientious "accompanist" at the start of that concerto.

The sound is excellent, The ambience that enhances the cello sound doesn't interfere with the orchestral textures. The basses' solid foundation comes across with a clean focus. That woodwind chorale in Dvořák's Adagio registers gorgeously against utter silence -- we used to take this sort of thing for granted on early CDs.

Perhaps everyone was just trying too hard in the Dvořák first movement; when this cellist just relaxes into her virtuosity and phrases naturally, as in the Tchaikovsky, she's unbeatable. I look forward to hearing more from her.

Stephen Francis Vasta