Tribute to Piatagorsky = BRAHMS: Double Concerto; SAINT-SAËNS: Cello Concerto; BLOCH: Schelomo – Gregor Piatagorsky (cello) / Nathan Milstein (vln.) – Praga Digitals

Tribute to Piatagorsky = BRAHMS: Double Concerto in a minor, Op. 102; SAINT-SAËNS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in a minor, Op. 33; BLOCH: Schelomo – Rhapsody – Gregor Piatagorsky, cello/ Nathan Milstein, violin/ Robin Hood Dell Orchestra  of Philadelphia/ Fritz Reiner/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Munch (Bloch) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 368, 70:56 (6/9/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

The Old-World cello virtuoso Piatagorsky plies his glamorous trade in three repertory staples.

This assemblage of classic performances, 1950-1967, of famed Russian cellist Gregor Piatagorsky (1903-1976) easily demonstrates his glorious tone and consummate technique, which found natural expression in his chosen repertory. Certainly, prior to the appearance of Mstislav Rostropovich on the international concert stage, Piatagorsky dominated as the leading representative of his ‘school’ of musicianship. While the document of the Brahms Double Concerto from Philadelphia (29 June1951) – incorrectly attributed to NYC and the RCA studio orchestra – allows us to hear his work with compatriot Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), we unfortunately possess no recordings of the piano trio that included Vladimir Horowitz.

Despite Milstein’s often-cited dislike of the music of Brahms, he distinguishes himself consistently in performance, his having agreed to set down the Double Concerto in tribute to his friend Piatagorsky. Milstein used to quip that his part could be discarded so that Piatagorsky could have free reign in a cello concerto!  Led by Reiner and the “summer” version of the Philadelphia Orchestra – which Reiner coveted more than his esteemed ensemble in Chicago – the music flows at a brisk pace, virtuosic even from the sheer standpoint of musical execution. Musically, the piece draws upon the composer’s fondness – shared with Joseph Joachim – for the Viotti a minor Violin Concerto as well as the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Milstein and Piatagorsky combine for a rich, opulent sound in the dialogues of the opening Allegro. Four horns contribute to the marvelous beauty of the Andante in D Major, in which each of the soli has his own cantilena vocal lines. Those who under-rate Reiner in the music of Brahms would do well to reference his amazing Brahms e minor Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic issued years ago through Chesky Records. The last movement, Vivace non troppo, presents a Hungarian dance from Piatagorsky – answered quickly by Milstein – that exploits thirds and sixths, soon taken up by energetic clarinets, bassoons, flutes, and the tutti. The secondary theme in A Major has a bold swagger that Brahms will utilize in his final pages. The coda, poco meno allegro, quite sweeps us up in a virtuosity that resonates with Old-World majesty.

The 1873 Cello Concerto of Camille Saint-Saëns had already provided Piatagorsky a vehicle for a fine recorded performance with Frederick Stock in Chicago for CBS. The RCA recordings with Fritz Reiner (on LM 1187) has an immediacy of effect, given the forward thrusts of both solos and the RCA studio orchestra. A pity that Reiner did not choose to document more of his ideas in this composer’s legacy. The music itself represents a remarkable compression of Liszt’s symphonic-poem ethos and classical sonata-form, here condensed into a one-movement, unified composition that subdivides into a traditional concerto format. The presto passages burst with inflamed energy, whilst the cantabile episodes give us that purely liberated Piatagorsky song. We then segue effortlessly into the Allegretto, a balletic gavotte in B-flat that Saint-Saëns might have lifted from Lully and the love of Neapolitan harmony. Once more, look to the elegant cadenza in the last movement, Allegro non troppo, in which the coda in A Major allows Piatagosrsky to sing in a manner that structurally, has tied the entire concerto into one tight package.

The Hebraic Rhapsody Schelomo (1916) of Ernest Bloch testifies to his somewhat mystical statement that his music was “a voice. . .which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents.” Doubtless, Bloch felt his Jewish roots in some archetypal sense, an authentic sympathy with the Hebrew spirit expressed in its holy writ, “the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible.” The Book of Ecclesiastes (Solomon) finds voice in Piatagorsky’s declamatory and elegiac cello, often lamenting the “vanities” of this world. An amazing array of colors emanates from the Munch ensemble (rec. 30 January 1957), a virtual rainbow of sympathies and exhortations in exotic instrumental combinations, response to the laments and raptures of Solomon’s wisdom. This performance – along with that of Feuermann and Stokowski – achieve a Parnassus of musical expression in this prophetic work, especially in light of the European fate awaiting Jewry in the next 30 years. Do we not hear those same “indignant desert birds” that comment on the fate in nations in the Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”?

—Gary Lemco

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