Classical Reissue Reviews

WALTON: Cello Concerto; DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor – Gregor Piatagorsky, c./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio

A warm virtuosity we often miss in our current cello superstars well defines the Piatagorsky style, eminently displayed in two major concertos, here beautifully restored.

Published on December 6, 2013

WALTON: Cello Concerto; DVORAK: Cello  Concerto in B Minor – Gregor Piatagorsky, c./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio

WALTON: Cello Concerto; DVORAK: Cello  Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 – Gregor Piatagorsky, c./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio PASC 398, 72:08 [avail. in various formats from] ****:

William Walton composed his Cello Concerto between February and October 1956, for Russian virtuoso Gregor Piatagorsky (1903-1976), who had been impressed with the 1937 Violin Concerto conceived for his colleague Jascha Heifetz. Piatagorsky and Munch gave the Boston premier in January 1957, and the second performance took Piatagorsky to New York and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Walton’s syntax remains essentially romantic and texturally exotic in character, opening with a Moderato that sets the tone for much of the work. In C Major, the first movement offers a series of ripe colors from harp, vibraphone, and winds in a mock “ticking clock” motion, while the cello climbs to a majestic melody primed to Piatagorsky’s strong suit, his noble tone.  There are variants of the theme in E-flat and A-flat in the minor mode, and a section – marked tempo tranquillo in scales – that gives us pause. The last measures, over repeated tropes in flute and oboe, might remind auditors of the ending of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto.

The second movement, Allegro appassionato, projects a virile energy (with active battery parts from the BSO) we know from pre-WW II Walton, around the time of his First Symphony.  The trio section fuses Walton’s lyricism with his nervous propulsion. The last movement, Theme and Variations, combines a slow movement with a finale, Walton’s presenting a theme and six variations, of which the second and fourth allow Piatagorsky to relish cadenzas that sound like potent improvisations. After the theme, the first variant pits Piatagorsky against the colors of the celesta, harp and vibraphone. One of the variants (Allegro molto) allows the orchestra fierce declamations and counterpoint, a real toccata for orchestra. Variation 4 showcases the rhapsodic Piatagorsky, leading to high trills that inaugurate the final section. Deliberately, the cello enters two bars late, lost in the stars. When we return to the home key of C Major, a touch of cyclic form, the sustained confluence of dominant and tonic pedal nods to the Elgar Concerto. Walton prepared several alternative endings for this concerto, the last in 1974, but already-terminally ill Piatagorsky never performed it. What we have, however, resounds with magical lyricism and warm virtuosity we often miss in many of our current cello superstars.

The recording of the Dvorak Concerto (22 February 1960) enjoys an especial resonance, with the BSO winds and brass projecting a particularly alert interplay. The recording supposedly replaced an apocryphal Columbia inscription Piatagorsky was to have made with Mitropoulos. Several commentators have referred to the collaboration as “Olympian,” and it certainly conveys the same grandeur of feeling we experience from young Rostropovich and Talich. Lyrical fluency and passionate expressivity define the entire enterprise, and Munch seems to relish the Piatagorsky solos while he and the BSO provide a glowing body of luminous sound to glorify Dvorak’s enchanting melodies. Purists are bound to find quibbles with the occasional slurred note from Piatagorsky, but what could else define “pure” if not the expansive grandeur of the conception? The dialogues with first flute Doriot Anthony Dwyer contribute throughout a priceless series of exalted moments of lyric fancy. The close microphone placement to the cello likely mirrors the conductor’s perspective, and the warm ambiance of Piatagorsky and Munch flows through the Adagio with palpable grace and power. The spirit of earthy jubilation that soon translates to poetic nostalgia poignantly finds colossal expression in the last movement, rife with true songs for the composer’s own lost love, Josefina.

Producer Andrew Rose and his XR process has exquisitely restored the balances in these stereo  performances from RCA, so they now pay precious tribute to a revered master of his instrument, along with a conductor in full command of his resplendent symphonic palette. Highly recommended!

—Gary Lemco

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