The cello must be the most human of all instruments, as it is positioned closer to the body than any other. But there are many works for the cello that are badly written for the instrument. And yet there are three magnificent British Cello Concertos by Finzi, Bax and Bliss and perhaps the greatest cello concerto of all time is the B minor Concerto of Dvorak, a work of heavenly music particularly in the recording by Janos Starker. My colleagues and I have a great affection for Edmund Rubbra’s Soliloquy for cello and small orchestra, Op. 57, which is a ravishing work.
Works for solo cello are a bit thin on the ground but the masterpiece is Kodaly’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, Op. 8. Works for cello and piano are less scarce. The Beethoven sonatas are worthy, particularly the sonata in A, Op. 69, and there are the two Brahms sonatas. Whatever you do, do not buy the recordings by Jacqueline DuPre as the performances are overwhelming and, indeed, murdered by the hormonal intensity of her playing.
I have a special love for the cello, and have studied the cello repertoire extensively. It never ceases to amaze me that a British concerto for this lovely instrument is so popular, when it is so badly written for the instrument, and even in its introductory bars has some ugly sounds. It reminds me of the famous letter that Stanford wrote to the composer of this infamous concerto: “I am sitting in the smallest room in the house with your Cello Concerto before me, but thankfully, it will soon be behind me.” Beatrice Harrison, who often played this concerto, reminds us in her writings that whenever she played it the composer insisted that she wore navy blue knickers.
This current recital is fascinating because it covers a wide repertoire from about 1886 to the 1990s, and each work is in a different style. Stravinsky’s work is based on music by Pergolesi who died in 1736, Debussy is regarded as an impressionist and Brahms a mellow Romantic, whereas Morricone’s little piece comes from the feature film “The Mission” which starred the dependable Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons. Hence the subtitle of this disc: Diverse.
Susanne Beer has, since 1995, been the co-principal cellist of the London Philharmonic and has been a guest principal in many other orchestras. She has performed successfully in various parts of the world and among her teachers was the legendary William Pleeth for whom, incidentally, Rubbra wrote his Soliloquy. She has appeared in masterclasses with Tortelier, Isserlis, Karine Georgian and Natalia Gutman. She has been a continuo player at Glyndebourne and elsewhere for about 12 years. She is a complete musician.
Gareth Hancock is a very competent accompanist particularly in the demanding Brahms. He studied at Cambridge and RAM. He has conducted opera for Opera North. He is music director of the English Music Company and conductor of the London Welsh Chorale.
And so to the music. The Suite Italienne of 1932 displays Stravinsky’s continuing and loving devotion to Pergolesi, as did his ballet Pulcinella of 1930. The great cellist Piatigorsky advised Stravinsky on the writing for the cello and what we have is an affecting, attractive and hugely enjoyable piece full of contrasts.
The Debussy sonata of 1915 is a profound and strangely beautiful work in two movements namely ‘Prologue’ and ‘Serenade and Final’. It succeeds because it is very original, surely a requisite for all and every composition. I loved this performance and the marvelous contrasts of sound the cellist makes. Some of her soft playing is so beautiful that it is beyond praise. The pizzicato has an excellent control and is never rough.
Ms Beer’s individual style of playing the cello is successfully captured in the Brahms. There is a sensuousness and, as in the Debussy, a loving interpretation. Her playing is not over the top, or marred with personal idiosyncrasies. And the music hands together well with a coherence to be envied. She does not make virtuosity sound like weight-lifting, which some rather proud performers do. The music is mercurial. Just listen to the unbelievably beautiful and tender tone in the slow movement. It is simply ravishing. It conjures up all the best that life has to offer.
The Brahms is a masterwork. It has four movements, namely Allegro vivace, adagio affetuoso, allegro appassionato and allegro molto and in each movement Brahms does not alter the tempo. The music is no t episodic, stop and start music but music that flows. When you think that in the opening pages of the infamous concerto there are 24 changes of tempo, you will realize just how well Brahms presents a piece.
There are times in this piece where the cello is the accompanist, but, if there is a criticism, I do think the recording favours the pianist. All the repeats are played and great attention is given to details such as crescendos and tome. The variety in the pizzicato is excellent. As already said, the tenderness in the slow movement, set in F sharp, is out of this world, bars 8ff for example. The allegro appassionato is a foot-tapper and typical of a vigorous and engaging Brahms scherzo. I also marvel at the simple themes that Brahms uses as in the finale. There is something very endearing about this music and the way it is played, it is not a performance but an experience.
The Morricone piece is slight and seems out of place here. Ms Beer may have fared better if she had played the Fauré Elegie , for example, which would suite her evident skills.
Her playing is exquisite and lacking in mannerisms. She has a wonderful capacity to communicate. Her tone is ravishing and she puts the music first. We shall look forward to further recordings from the works of Boccherini to the complete works for cello by Kodály, but we must also hope she does not get trapped into playing those works which it seems everyone must play. She is both an individual and a rare talent and not deserving of being swallowed by traditional expectations and those hackneyed works which will only serve to draw her into the cauldron of typical cellists.
This disc cannot be recommended enough.
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