“French Cello Concertos” = SAINT-SAËNS: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1 in A Minor; LALO: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in D Minor; MILHAUD: Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 136; OFFENBACH: Les larmes de Jacqueline; MASSENET: Meditation from “Thais” ‒ Hee-Young Lim, cello / London Symphony Orchestra / Scott Yoo ‒ Sony 80358118425, 75:00 (12/14/18) ***1/2
Given that first-rate cello concertos are not exactly thick on the ground, as our English friends would say, it’s surprising as well as disappointing that the Saint-Saëns and Lalo works aren’t heard more often in the concert hall. Both composers still, to some extent, suffer from the one-work-wonder phenomenon that afflicts composers such as Bruch and Leoncavallo, though Saint-Saens is sort of a two-hit wonder since you’ll hear his Piano Concerto No. 2 about as often in concert as his orchestral spectacular the Organ Symphony. Alas, Lalo’s one hit, Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra, is heard just about never these days. Since I’m one of Lalo’s last remaining fans, I find this quite unfortunate. The violin piece is colorful and eventful, which can be said as well of the Cello Concerto.
Unfolding in three generously timed movements, this concerto has drama and contrast galore. The first movement, marked Prelude: Lento – Allegro maestoso, is for the most part majestic, or at least stately. Its forceful first melody is announced by a very stentorian orchestra followed by a brief solo utterance from the cello. The cello continues to unfold the first melody, punctuated by powerful outbursts from the orchestra. By contrast, the second melody is a tender dialog between cello and orchestra, the flutes prominent in the mix. There is something Schumannesque about it—not surprising since Lalo’s musical sympathies seem to lie more with German masters than with French. This movement is followed by a placid Intermezzo that nonetheless has a lively, dancing middle section reminding one of the composer’s canny ability to mimic the Spanish musical idiom. The last movement, after a brief andante introduction, is all forward momentum, the cello line suave and sinuous against a frisky orchestral backdrop. The trumpets add a special splash of color here and there in what is really a very attractive finale. So, again, why isn’t this piece heard more often?
Whatever the reason, Korean cellist Hee-Young Lim brings out all the color and drama of Lalo’s writing, and this would be a thoroughly successful performance if the tempo in the first movement weren’t so stodgy. To me, the pace is a bit sluggish, which makes the movement more pomposo than maestoso. That said, it’s still a mostly decent performance, though it can’t compete with the finest versions on disc.
I have no such reservations about the performance of the Saint-Saëns concerto. Soloist and conductor seem to catch all the fire of this compact juggernaut of a concerto. Cast in one movement in three distinct sections, the concerto is an example of the composer’s embrace of Liszt’s principle of continuous development, the two fast outer sections essentially developing the same musical material. They frame a rather dainty minuet that hints at Saint-Saëns’s lifelong interest in earlier music. (He was to become a pioneer editor of the music of Rameau and Lully.) The concerto is often praised for the balance that Saint-Saëns achieves between soloist and orchestra, and in this performance, each complements the other perfectly, creating a very successful partnership.
The Cello Concerto (1934) by the vastly prolific Darius Milhaud is an odd little amalgam of contrasts that makes Lalo’s work seem positively homogeneous. It starts with a dramatic utterance by the soloist that quickly melts into the mood described by the movement title: Nonchalant—as casual as a midday saunter along a Parisian boulevard. There are jazzy little accents here and there that are given full reign in the skittish finale, marked Joyeux. But in between is a haunted slow movement marked Grave that Lim notes is “almost like the composer is trying to shake off the memories of World War One. . . .” Lim’s affection for this quirky piece is obvious, resulting in a n entirely enjoyable performance.
Enjoyable, too, are the renditions of the two filler works, one famous, the other not so, both rather sentimental but also displaying the same melodic beauty that the composers brought to their well-known arias. Meditation, by the way, works very well on the cello, playing mostly in its upper registers. The throatier sonorities of the cello certainly don’t diminish the poignancy of the work. Here and throughout the recording, the cello is very much front and center, the orchestra somewhat recessive and sounding studio bound.
Perhaps the performances of the standard works in this recital can’t match classic ones available, but this is still an attractive debut album by an artist whose career definitely bears watching.