SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129; BRAHMS: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102*; BLOCH: From Jewish Life: No. 1, Prayer; BRUCH: Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 ‒ Zuill Bailey, Cello/Philippe Quint, Violin/Philharmonia Orchestra/Robin O’Neill/*North Carolina Symphony Orchestra/*Grant Llewellyen ‒ Steinway & Sons 30132 [Distr. by Naxos of America] (9/2/19), 71:70 ****
While at this point in his career, it all might be repeating the obvious, but the highest commendations to the multi-faceted Zuill Bailey, truly a star on his instrument!
Compositional reflections— As a great fan of Schumann, it pains me to confess that the Cello Concerto is not a favorite of mine. It seems overly lugubrious to me and rather small-scale, but then that latter impression is one Schumann himself wanted to convey. Originally, the composer dubbed it Konzertstück, which suggests the reduced scale of the work in terms of both length and scoring. He applied the same term to his earlier Opus 86, the Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, also a brief work and one, like the Cello Concerto, in which the three movements are played attaca. But all of Schumann’s other concerted works, including the other pieces he designated Konzertstück (two for piano besides the one for horns), project a larger profile, with the orchestra very much a major player in the action. In the Cello Concerto, the solo instrument is clearly the central figure, the orchestra recessive until the last movement. Early listeners to the concerto had a similar reaction to mine, I suppose; it was given its first public performance in 1860, four years after Schumann’s death, and then languished until Pablo Casals began championing it in the early Twentieth Century.
Joan Chissell, a leading Schumann scholar, believed the lovely but short (around four minutes) Langsam second movement is the chief selling point of the concerto. She felt that the finale “lacked all driving force.” (I hope I quote her accurately). Well, in the present performance, there is a lot of drive and energy, giving the lie to Chissell’s assessment. And the Langsam is characteristically lovely, the solo cello buoyed on waves of pizzicatos from the orchestral strings. This is altogether a handsome and successful reading that’s distinguished by the rarely played (at least I don’t recall encountering it) last-movement cadenza by Gregor Piatigorsky, which gives added breadth and gravity to the finale. Even so, I still can’t fully warm to the piece.
On the other hand, while the Double Concerto (1887) is not the equal of Brahms’s three other concerti, this, the last orchestral work from the composer’s pen, has always intrigued and entertained me. It’s intrigued me because in this late work Brahms turned to an earlier model among concerted pieces, the sinfonia concertante. An offshoot of the Baroque concerto grosso, the sinfonia concertante was already old hat by the time Beethoven penned his one example of the form, the curious Triple Concerto (1803). In fact, it’s notable that when Brahms heard Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (completed in 1896), he confessed he didn’t know that such a work was possible, and if he had, he would have essayed one himself. Perhaps, like Schumann, Brahms had believed the cello would need to be very much front and center in a concerto setting; he was probably taken aback by the outsized role the orchestra plays in Dvořák’s work.
But there is a personal reason that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto. It was designed as a peace offering to the great violinist Joseph Joachim, a friend of more than thirty years. When Joachim separated from his wife Amalie because of supposed infidelity, Brahms sided with Amalie, whom he felt Joachim had maligned. This obviously strained the friendship, which Brahms restored with his gift to Joachim.
Like Brahms’s other concerti, the Double Concerto is largescale in all regards, with a big and very vocal late Romantic orchestra. But for all the large gestures in the work by both orchestra and the two virtuosi needed to project the difficult solo parts, the piece is warm and friendly, with an especially boisterous rondo finale. In this regard, it reminds me of Brahms’s warmest and most relaxed symphony, the Second, often described as his pastoral symphony.
I find this performance especially big-hearted, with some very tender voicing of the equally tender slow movement (one of Brahms’s most beautiful), as well as both fiery and flavorful playing in the outer movements. Philippe Quint—whom I’ve admired in his recordings of modern American concertos by William Schumann, Korngold, and Rorem—is clearly at home in the Romantic repertory; he and Bailley form a seamless partnership in the Double Concerto. And the surprising North Carolina Symphony continues to make a name for itself on disc.
The two makeweights on this recording are welcome, especially the Bruch, one of his most gorgeous creations, with its soulful writing for the cello and those sweeping figures the harps provide toward the end of the piece.
I have to say that the recording is variable, given the two venues employed (Henry Wood Hall in London and the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh), though mostly very good. Surprisingly, the Schumann Concerto sounds rather cramped in the naturally resonant Henry Wood Hall; the Brahms recording seems more spacious in this live recording. The Bruch, too, has a livelier, richer sound than the Schumann. But it’s the performances that count here, and I can recommend them, and the generous program, as a fine way to hear these cello classics.