SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in a minor, Op. 129; SAINT-SAENS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in a minor, Op. 33; TCHAIKOVSKY: Rococo Variations, Op. 33 – Antonio Meneses, cello/ Royal Northern Sinfonia/ Claudio Cruz – Avie AV2373, 60:29 (8/18/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Antonio Meneses pays homage, via three concerted works,  to his Tchaikovsky Competition roots from 1982.

It seems that as artists approach their 60th birthday—see Krystian Zimerman’s thoughts regarding late Schubert on DGG—they turn to long-cherished repertory and contribute new insights. Antonio Meneses (b. 1957) took the musical world by storm in 1982, winning First Prize and the Gold Medal at the VII International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. With conductor Claudio Cruz (rec. 3-4 January 2017), Meneses visits three staples of the cello repertoire, by Schumann, Saint-Saens, and Tchaikovsky.

The Schumann a minor Concerto (1850) typifies his late, economical style, recycling its opening thematic and motor materials, and employing his standard Intermezzo in lieu of a concerto’s slow movement.  Meneses and Cruz play the tender work for its intimacy and dark bursts of energy. The piece rarely ventures into virtuoso bravura, but it does call for an accompanied cadenza in the last movement that became a model for Edward Elgar. That the music conveys a persuasive lyricism appealed most to one if its most devoted practitioners, Gregor Piatagorsky. The Royal Northern Sinfonia, comprised of 38 players, creates a responsive accompaniment and series of intertwined motifs without having sacrificed the expansive, salon effect that makes the reading memorable.

Camille Saint-Saens conceived his one-movement Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1872. Saint-Saens had in mind the Belgian cello virtuoso Auguste Tolbecque, the contributor to the didactic La Gymnastique du violoncello.  After a mere, one-chord orchestral introduction, Meneses enters with a grand flair and suave panache. Curiously, the frenetic pace comes to a halt in what might have served as a development section, an Allegretto con moto in ¾ time. In an antique mode, with pizzicato accompaniment, this intermezzo suggests a classical minuet in B-flat. The third section resumes a spectacular sense of motion, culminating in long-lined, sweet melody that warrants the price of admission.  Meneses and Cruz apply the requisite magic that has made this concerto an eternal favorite among its virtuoso acolytes, Piatagorsky, Pierre Fournier, and Leonard Rose.

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 Rococo Variations had a fellow colleague at the Moscow Conservatory as its intended dedicatee, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Set in Mozartean style, the piece employs a gavotte tune (Moderato semplice) followed by a set of seven variations that Fitzenhagen arranged according to his own taste, publishing the revised work through Jurgenson. The affecting Adagio movement Fitzenhagen moved to just prior to the codetta. As played by Meneses, the piece achieves the noble, lyric beauty and hustling bravura that we know from Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich.

The sound document, with production, balance engineering, and editing by Simon Fox-Gal, is first rate.

—Gary Lemco