Composed in the spring of 1966, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, with its gloomy meditations of passing life already suffering intimations of mortality, has only been cautiously accepted for the masterpiece it is. The work conforms to the elegiac, intimate, late style of the composer, who began to explore exotic timbres in his music, such as the play of the cello against instruments like the tambourine, double bassoon, battery instruments, and harp. Even when the cello begins to break free of the dark cast of melancholy, a savage bass drum intrudes, the bassoons whimpering or croaking in the manner of some unholy Egyptian plague. The second movement reasserts Shostakovich’s irrepressible sarcasm, a folktune (“Buy my bubliki”) subjected to all sorts of musical distortions. We can still detect the four-note rhythm which made the E-flat Cello Concerto famous. Buzzings and clarion motifs from the horns and snare drum add a militaristic impulse which often threatens hysteria.
Romanesque and a bit Hollywood-sounding, the Scherzo seamlessly transitions into the tambourine-accompanied cadenza, whose own function is to lead us into the finale. The music clears up, becomes lyrical in the manner of Haydn or Vivaldi, then absolutely bucolic for a moment until the music ambles, marcato, with muffled threats from the tympani. Again, the martial influence assumes control, although the instrumentations remains prickly, Harrell singing with the harp in the midst of pizzicato taps and mumbled, metallic percussion. Pianissimo, the music takes on a wraithlike texture, nostalgia now become the order of the day until obviously militaristic forces overwhelm everything. Shostakovich introduces a long-held pedal D in the cello that may be a distant cousin of the Brahms Requiem, part of the extended coda of lamentation whose xylophone suggests a danse macabre.
Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto (1951) involved his re-working his prior Concerto, Op. 58 with the help of Mstislav Rostropovich. The opening Andante offers a hugely improvisational character for the cello, while the busy orchestral flourishes justify the work’s symphonic title. Harrell negotiates the fierce glissandi with suave facility, then he climbs the melodic arch which collides with its own accompaniment. The pizzicato figure, marcato, is more than reminiscent of Romeo’s departure music from the ballet, an allusion which occurs again in the second movement, when a street dance intrudes upon a musical subject seemingly borrowed from Hansel und Gretel. As thick as the orchestration is, a gossamer clarity runs through Schwarz’s Liverpool Philharmonic.
The Allegro gusto, which combines a scherzo and slow movement, emanates a bustling, ceaseless energy, the cello singing and shrieking up flurries and storms of activity. For the sheer, self-indulgent pleasure of musical bravura, this movement between Harrell and Schwarz sells the album. Virtuoso cadenza passages, striking duets with flute and bassoon, lush cantabile and arioso declamations from Romeo and Juliet make the movement a Prokofiev sonic microcosm. The iconoclastic theme-and-variations last movement makes parody its main focus, including a colloquy between the solo cello and a string sextet. Harrell plays his 1720 Montagnana instrument for all its glories, suave and acerbic. The Liverpool horns blaze up, and the orchestral tissue thickens into a great hymn that looks back upon the composer’s own creative canvas, in the nostalgic manner of Dvorak’s epic concerto. The cello’s high A string, collaborating with the colors of the Romeo and Juliet ballet, create a rare moment of valedictory ensemble.
— Gary Lemco