ELGAR & TCHAIKOVSKY: Cello Concerto; Variations on a Rococo Theme – Johannes Moser, cello/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande/ Andrew Manze – Pentatone

ELGAR & TCHAIKOVSKY: Cello Concerto; Variations on a Rococo Theme – Johannes Moser, cello/ Orch. de la Suisse Romande/ Andrew Manze  – Pentatone multichannel SACD 5186 570, 64:46 (2/3/17) *****:

A compelling pairing of two works by like-minded composers, delivered in stunning super-audio format. 

With a little imagination and modest time travel, it is possible to witness the following encounter. A man, elegantly dressed with cane and boater, enters a pub. His rigid posture of self-composure contrasts with the look of utter despondency on his face. Peering about, he spies a solitary figure in a shadowy corner. The beard looks familiar and upon approach, it turns out to be Peter Tchaikovsky, slumped over a pint of ale, his face a picture of forlorn melancholy. Sir Edward acknowledges the fellow sufferer and takes a seat. Soon the two composers are commiserating over their personal troubles, their shared feeling of grief and disillusionment.  Edward, recently widowed, finds himself in artistic doldrums, unable to stir the sources of his once fertile creativity. His wider points of reference include the ruin of the Great War, which has cast every human value into doubt. Peter, for his part, has a litany of complaints: fractured relationships, conflicted sexuality, a deep sense of isolation from his peers. As surely as misery loves company, the two forge a solidarity out of their mutual bleakness. But even as the shadows lengthen, a crepuscular light filters in, and they begin to connect on more positive terms. Each discovers an unsuspected source of strength and hope, which allows them to buoy one another up.

Peter begins to enthuse about his undying affection for his mentor, Amadeus Mozart, who stands as the reproach to everything squalid and botched in life and art. As long as the dream of Mozart persists, he can endure and create beauty of his own. Elgar, on the other hand, is more broadly rooted in a Victorian code of values (now, scornfully rejected by the ‘bright new things’ of the ‘20s). This code is compounded of stoicism, courage, order and manly vigor (of which Peter could use a little, Sir Edward notices). Soon the two friends are feeling the freshening winds; they share plans to return to composing, and pen works informed by their brief friendship, expressive of a somber vision, but redeemed by a hard won affirmation.

Returned to the present, we see the products of this meeting in a recording that realizes the special affinity between these two composers who straddle the late-Romantic/ Edwardian boundary. German cellist Johannes Moser and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande deliver an especially fine Cello Concerto in E minor as well as the original version of Peter Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Op. 33. To this are added substantial cello encores of by the latter composer.

In the concerto, the cello enters famously in mid-sob. One is doubly startled. First, one doesn’t know how know to react seeing a grown man cry. Second, we are overwhelmed by the vivid presence of the multichannel surround sound. We wonder how we got seated among the orchestra itself and whether we will be discovered and sent back to our seats. The entry of the orchestra gives us a complete and detailed sonic image. The Adagio certainly takes us inward into a sadness beyond the personal realm. Even so, the first lyrical subject brings a consoling reprieve. The orchestra, too, seems to be determined to stave off the darkest thoughts. Herr Moser, is careful to keep his vibrato from lugubrious overstatement, which is for the best.  Make no mistake, this is music to evoke images of the desolation of Ypres and the Somme. It is not unreasonable to credit Tchaikovsky in the construction of this expressive language.

The Lento and Allegro molto follow, and we are thrown between somber introspection and hearty resolution. Both soloist and orchestra play with bright zest. I have never heard such a “stiff upper-lipped” Elgar. For the Adagio, one can imagine conductor Andrew Manze, instructing the players. “No more tears! We are lying on our backs on the grass looking up at the scudding clouds. Let’s just say that the Great War never happened.” It is, on the other hand, the sort of gentle pastoralism that would doom Elgar to the category of old-fogeyism in the ‘30s. It ends oddly as if the picnickers on the grass have had their reverie cut short.

The final Allegro shows the best interplay between virtuosic cello playing and lively orchestral passages. The cello sounds suitably grand as the music tries to persuade us that triumph is possible. It seems to evoke heroism in the face of trials, all the more so given the inspired playing of the soloist, who seems to have borrowed some of the lyrical élan of Peter Tchaikovsky to go with the strenuous virtuosity.

By now we can hardly wait for Elgar to return the favor. It is harder of course for the future to speak to the past. The future’s one trick is running just ahead of the present like a mechanical rabbit in front of greyhounds. My son at a young age once faced this arrow-of-time puzzle as he queried his mother “Is it tomorrow yet?”  Alas, tomorrow always recedes, yet in this case we would like to imagine that Tchaikovsky has borrowed some of Sir Edward’s strength of character, by means of which he has chastened his Romantic solipsism. In fact, Moser and his Swiss confederates work to effect this this transmigration of souls.

The warm heralding of horns sets the stage for the inspired prancing of the sunlit theme by the cello. It is briskly played with alert ensembles and no flagging of energy or focus. Notions of expressive dimensions recede as we admire the pure craft of the theme and variations. Here Tchaikovsky is at his most inspired, allowing the melodies to tumble out, one after another. Little theatrical gestures and cadenza-like passages allow a truly “classical” character to emerge against a relatively simple harmonic background. Midway through there is almost too much joviality when a galloping Allegro vivo is followed by farcical waltz. A longish Andante returns some of the lushness and just enough Weltsmerz to remind us that this is the composer of the Pathetique symphony after all. The last movement and Coda are showy and extroverted, a whirl without emotional baggage.

As encores we get three extra pieces for cello and orchestra. The first, a Nocturne arranged by the composer from one of his piano pieces, was unfamiliar. It certainly fits perfectly with the cello. The second is the most well-known melody of all, a transcription of the Andante Cantabile from the String Quartet No.1, a splendid lyrical inspiration. Finally, there is the Pezzo Capriccioso, which, amazingly, has an opening declaration that sounds reminiscent of Elgar’s work. Written over an entire summer under difficult circumstances involving the death of a friend, nevertheless, it is mostly energetic, with just a bit of cantabile hand-wringing.

I will probably always pair these two main cello works together as result of this outstanding presentation. I might recommend that the three extra pieces be given a separate audition, as they disturb the perfect balance between the main offerings. This is a truly great recording which should not be missed.

TrackList: Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85; Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33; Nocturne for Cello and Orchestra; Andante Cantabile; Pezzo Capriccioso Op. 62

—Fritz Balwit

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