This is a superb combination of sterling performances by one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, recorded on 35mm magnetic film rather than recording tape, and if your system is set up for multichannel you will be hearing the original three-channel master rather than the special stereo SACD mixdown or the older 44.1 stereo mixdown from the 1990s. The 35mm recording format simply allowed more magnetic coating to be imprinted with the sound, thus increasing the resolution and dynamic range and lowering the noise floor. As with most of the 3-channel material now being released on SACD by Mercury and RCA, the enhancement of the soundstaging and clarity is even more effective in concertos such as these for solo instrument and orchestra. If you have three matched frontal speakers – at least in the midrange and high end – the solidity of the solo instrument’s placement in front of the orchestra is greatly improved over the phantom center image, even you are sitting squarely in the “sweet spot.” Yes, Starker sounds a bit larger-than-life and closely-miked, but I find this less disturbing with cello than it is with violin soloists.
The sessions were held in 1962 and 1964, both in the acoustically-acclaimed Watford town Hall in the UK. C. Robert Fine and Mercury engineers used only three matched Telefunken 201 mikes for the three channels – no problems of phase cancellation or delays here. Schumann’s only cello concerto has become almost as much of a chestnut on programs as his piano concerto, but Starker makes the lovely work sound fresh and definitely worth hearing again. Just as with his piano concerto, the soloist comes in almost immediately and takes control for the whole movement. The cadenza to the work was composed by Starker.
The Lalo Concerto is a major work which should be heard more. It is also the composer’s only original work for cello and orchestra. Lalo was of Spanish ancestry, and makes use of some Spanish folk music and dances in the concerto. The work has an optimistic air about it and ends in very high spirits. Saint-Saens wrote a great deal of music for the cello, and then he wrote a great deal of music, period. Its three movements are played without a break, and are full of melodious themes and their development. This is a highly recommended disc on every count. It may elicit interest in hearing more superb Starker interpretations, and two of the best are on other discs of the Mercury SACD series – the Bach solo cello suites, and the Dvorak Cello Concerto.
– John Sunier