Paul Tortelier, Cello — The RIAS Recordings — Audite

by | Apr 13, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2; MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58; BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38; JS BACH: Solo Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012; FAURE: Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op 117; Papillon in A Major, Op. 77; PAGANINI (arr. Silva): Introduction and Variations on “Dal tuo stllato soglio” from Rossini’s ‘Moses in Egypt’; SCHUMANN: Fantasiestucke in A minor, Op. 73; CASELLA: Cello Sonata No. 2 in C Major, Op. 45;  KODALY: Solo Cello Sonata, Op. 8; TORTELIER: Trois p’tits tours – Paul Tortelier, cello/ Lothar Broddack, piano/  Klaus Billing, piano – Audite 21.455 (3 CDs) 71:37; 68:42; 66:54 (2/7/20) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

As a representative of the so-called “French School” of cello playing, Paul Tortelier (1914-1990) embodied, in his aristocratic poise and demeanor, the natural heir to Pablo Casals.  Unlike Casals, however, Tortelier eschewed an overly zealous, highly mannered, Romantic style, rather emphasizing the loose and flexible bow technique advocated by his principal teachers, Hekking and Feuillard. The sound Tortelier produced could prove lush and luxurious, but it remains tautly controlled and chiseled, somewhat like that of Janos Starker, but not so chaste and imperiously literal in relation to the score. The buoyant intensity Tortelier projected found a pragmatic assistance in the high, bent endpin of his instrument, which, while somewhat resistant to the cello’s first position, aided in the more difficult higher position while thrusting his forward tone resonantly. A perfect example of the success of Tortelier’s approach lies in this first release of his RIAS Berlin performance of the Bach Solo Suite No. 6 in D Major (9 September 1949), which in the course of the work’s six movements, demonstrates the sheer panoply of color Tortelier could draw from his instrument. Each of Bach’s melodic lines enjoys a fluid, etched delineation and accentuation, and the smooth legato flows in a singer’s grasp of controlled melody.

Tortelier often receives criticism for the relative conservatism of his musical taste and repertory: when I saw/heard him at Carnegie Hall, in the 1970’s, he played – immaculately – the discredited Fitzenhagen version of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, and that is all! I wanted more. Tortelier avoided much of the 20th Century repertory, although this set provides us the 30 January 1962 performance of the 1926 Alfredo Casella’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in C Major. A substantial work, the piece opens with a powerful Preludio: Largo molto e sostenuto for piano solo (Lothar Broddack). Tortelier enters with a fierce declamation in music clearly tonal, gloomy, but essentially lyric. We soon realize that the “sonata” proves to be a suite in antique style. The strong neo-Classical influence reveals itself in the polyphonic development section, which, barring some passing dissonances, resembles any number of poignant exertions in Bach or Boccherini. Tortelier’s fluid legato, when accompanied by dry, repeated notes in the keyboard, shines in haunted, drooping sequences. The expressive range of the music takes us to the top of the cello’s tessitura, almost a nasal, head-tone projection. The immediate descent into the low baritone range provides a fluid sense of Tortelier’s color palette.

The second movement, Bourree, proffers a quirky scherzando in which Broddack must flow fast staccatos while Tortelier either plays legato or pizzicato. The music increases in volume and intensity, then thins out to let  Tortelier play in a leger style not so departed from Stravinsky or Poulenc. The ensuing Largo has a deep and ark gravitas, an elegy anguished in tone, much as Shostakovich might weep. Double-stopped, low tones in a mourning scale occur in both voices, a potent and often gripping moment of bleak despair. The solo piano “cadenza” sounds like an improvisatory, parlando transition from Bartok, and then the cello takes up the funereal procession. To alleviate the “bitter tea” of the prior movement, Casella ends with a Rondo: Allegro molto vivace, quasi Giga, proceeding in quick imitation and then stridently marching forward. The music assumes “symphonic” sonorities that we might assign to Hindemith, but the playful impetus returns, now with a Stravinsky sense of incisive attack that lightens the mood and the texture to a mumbling then thrusting coda.

Few compositions compel Tortelier’s passion for the expressive powers of his instrument as does the 1918 Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 by Zoltan Kodaly. The performance (12-13 February 1949) captures the fierce unity and economy of the work, whose folk roots lie in its opening theme, Allegro maestoso ma appassionato, ¾, from which a tapestry of continuous variation proceeds. The B minor home key has its own (scordatura) incarnation, one that sets the Phrygian mode in motion, along with a series of simultaneous or polytonal harmonies. What enthralls us derives from the ability of the instrument to assume different personae: harp, flute, bagpipe, cimbalom, or compressed gypsy band’s playing verbunkos music. A natural pianist and viola player, Kodaly taught himself the cello, so perhaps his musical imagination escaped the “fetters” of didactic instruction.

The astonishing second movement, Adagio: Con grand’ espressione, set in B-flat minor, commands an array of effects demanding a metric control quite daunting. Kodaly admired the Richard Strauss tone-poem Don Quixote, and Kodaly speeds up the momentum of the movement with triplet and quintuplet figures in 12/8. Tremolos and fast arpeggios approximate the sound of a gypsy cembalom. With the key of C minor, Kodaly can manipulate essentially Magyar cadences ad libitum. The wild Allegro molto vivace last movement shimmers with “orchestral” effects, especially a bagpipe ensemble in 2/4, a manic Rondo with dotted eighths and running 16ths. The extensive pizzicatos supply a sense of festival, gone somewhat berserk. Kodaly has moved, through modal and mesmerizing means, to the key of C. Tortelier often produces nothing less than a blizzard of sound in various dynamic ranges, and no wonder contemporary virtuoso Janos Starker ranked the work among the most primary for the echelon on great cello pieces! The last measures of this monument defy human hands, with their having passed through an oblique reference to Bach and surging, madly, into the abyss.

February 1949 proved a busy time for Tortelier’s recording schedule at RIAS: besides the brilliant rendition of the Kodaly, Tortelier and pianist Klaus Billing turn in a performance (13 February 1949) of the 1866 Brahms Sonata No. 1 in E minor, a work heavily in debt to Bach, particularly the Contrapunctus XIIII from The Art of Fugue. From the throaty voice of Tortelier’s cello to open the Allegro non troppo, he and Billing exchange treble and bass lines, with Billing’s occasionally playing two hands in soprano. When the cello’s middle range fits between Billing’s hands, the interplay becomes sadly intimate. Brahms scholar Karl Geiringer characterizes the Allegretto quasi Menuetto as a “sad waltz,” dominated by a four-note idea that runs throughout the movement. Tortelier’s nasal sound in the Trio imparts a sad edginess to the moment. Combining his innate respect for sonata-form with a fierce compulsion to polyphony, Brahms sets his Bach motif for the Allegro finale in obsessive motion, rife with inversion, stretto, and shifting accents. The last pages ring with a wonderful, explosive vitality that transcends whatever “academic” impulses informs this music.

From several days later in February, 1949, the 25th to be exact, Tortelier and Lothar Braddock play through Faure’s charming excursion – a la Rimsky-Korsakov’s Bumblebee – in Papillon, Op. 77 a perpetuo moto from 1898, utilizing a fluid, lyrically descending bass line fond of symmetrical bar lines. Bach on February 12, Tortelier and Billing collaborate in Schumann’s Fantasiestuecke in A minor, Op. 73, conceived in 1849 for clarinet but adaptable in the composer’s view, to viola or cello. The first piece, Zart und mit Ausdruck, utilizes half and whole steps, the keyboard’s providing running triplets that will figure later in the piece. Schumann shifts the tonal context to A Major for the second movement, Lebhaft, leicht, yet the melodic current presented basically mirrors the first movement. The contest between duple and triple meters works itself out in lovely harmony. The last movement exploits what has seemed the dual nature of his melodies, the ubiquitous Florestan/Eusebius schism, here played by Tortelier and Billing with passionate reverie, Rasch und mit Feuer. A three-movement work wrought of essentially the same cloth appears to be a Schumann specialty, given his undeviating veneration of the Beethoven Fifth. A moment of light originality comes from Tortelier himself – on 12 February 1949 – as he and Billing perform the suavely witty Trois p’tits tours. The first of the triptych, Lever de Rideau – L’indifferent – Gavotte has the earmarks of a parody of Couperin. The jolting stretches and sly glissandos make Tortelier’s hands work compressed miracles. Ballerine – Valse has the uneasy grace of Leslie Caron slightly tipsy, maybe in a sketch by Degas or Lautrec. The melodic resemblance to Debussy’s Le plus que lente cannot be an accident.  The last set, Le Pitre – Burlesque – Baisser de Rideau has the impish character of a Stravinsky etude or persona from Petrushka, and the cello quite whistles its way up the scale: clever, debonair wit from a master of his instrument.

On 30 January 1962, Tortelier and Broddack committed Gabriel Faure’s 1921-22 Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor to tape, a melancholy work intended to commemorate the centennial of Napoleon’s death. Tortelier and Broddack make the ¾ opening theme, Allegro, sing with a hearty nostalgia, the contrapuntal elements infused into the sonata-form seamlessly. Faure loves the descending seventh as a leading ploy, especially as it allows him to gravitate at the conclusion of the Allegro into the parallel G Major.  The sad Andante serves as a funereal song, in heartfelt E-flat, a key that becomes quite obsessive as the movement progresses, turning at the end of its elegy into a poignant B minor. Tortelier projects a taut, impassioned, linear melodic line, reminiscent of the Op. 24 Elegie of 1880, but here informed by a quiet resignation, especially in its second theme, set in A-flat Major. A descending scale in 2/4, set in B-flat Major, opens the Allegro vivo, which combines the idea of a scherzo with a chordal finale, though Faure injects unexpected harmonies and phrases that range from jazz syncopations to four-part harmony and divided octaves in the piano. Tortelier’s pizzicatos and ostinato notes enjoy a resounding sonority, a revitalizing energy.

What remains of this fine tribute all derives from 25 February 1964: Beethoven’s late Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2; Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in D, Op. 58; and the clever Variations based upon Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, as arranged by Paganini and then Luigi Silva (1903-1961) for cello transcription. Each of these collaborations takes place with the sensitive accompaniment of Lothar Broddack.  If the Beethoven and Mendelssohn testify to the artists’ sense of proportion and balanced voicing, the Paganini illustrates how one continuous line may assume any number of vivid colors and contours from an artist of infinite finesse. The silken, unruffled quality of Tortelier’s trill alone warrants the price of admission.

As a companion to the extensive 2010 set from EMI, Paul Tortelier: The Great Recordings, this RIAS collection will retain an essential place in this artist’s legacy.

—Gary Lemco

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