C.P.E. Bach would undoubtedly rejoice, were he alive, upon hearing this album of his cello concertos by Truls Mørk and Les Violons du Roy under the direction of Bernard Labadie. From the opening notes, one cannot help but feel the orchestra is fantastic. The A major Cello Concerto begins with vigor and liveliness, with the ensemble playing perfectly together in tempo with great spirit. Mørk plays just as well, with a clean, accurate, and somewhat light touch.
While J.S. Bach’s Suites for solo cello are, by definition, closely identified with Mstislav Rostropovich as the supreme cellist of his time, the B flat concerto of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach represents a more unusual departure. It is programmed here with two concertos in D major by Italian composers of the elder Bach’s generation, Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini.
What a versatile artist Steven Isserlis is. Having made his name as a sympathetic interpreter of a wide variety of romantic and modern music, here he shows he can be just as persuasive in eighteenth-century repertoire. His stylistic awareness is evident in beautiful, elegant phrasing, selective use of vibrato and varied articulation, giving an expressive range that never conflicts with the music’s natural language. In the cello concertos he is helped by an extremely sensitive accompaniment, stressing the chamber musical aspects of Haydn’s pre-London orchestral writing. The soft, intimate sonority at 3'06'' in the first movement of the D major is a typical example. The Adagios are taken at a flowing speed, but Isserlis’s relaxed approach means they never sound hurried. The Allegro molto finale of the C major Concerto, on the other hand, sounds poised rather than the helter-skelter we often hear. In his understanding of the music, Isserlis is a long way ahead of Han-na Chang, whose version places the emphasis on fine, traditional-style cello playing. Mork’s vivacious, imaginative performances characterize the music very strongly, but my preference would be for Isserlis’s and Norrington’s lighter touch and greater refinement.
Among his many famous and beloved concertos, Vivaldi wrote no fewer than twenty-seven for the cello an instrument that at the time was generally consigned to playing basso continuo. With the genuine virtuosi he had available to him at the Ospedale della Pietà, the Prete Rosso played a key role in the emancipation of the cello. On this new CD of Vivaldi concertos, acclaimed cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras is supported by the musicians of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in a fascinating program that is further enhanced by a selection of highly expressive Sinfonias by Antonio Caldara.
These three magnificent works belong in the repertoire of cellists everywhere. They are full of Villa-Lobos’ signature exotic instrumental textures, folk-like melodies, and abundant invention. They are also harder than hell to play, and difficult to balance. Villa-Lobos was a cellist himself, and loved the instrument’s low, dark register. Penetrating his dense orchestration without making the instrument sound like a dying cow is just one of the many challenges facing cellists attempting to come to grips with this marvelously expressive music, though recordings can solve this problem with sensitive microphone placement. Antonio Meneses understands both the music and its performance problems, and his lower register manages to sound gruff without undue signs of bovine distress. He’s helped by some very sensitive accompaniments; Pérez projects the music’s lush timbres without laying it on too thick.
In a promotional DVD accompanying this release Jean-Guihen Queyras cites the abundance of excellent Bach Cello Suites cycles on the market as one reason he waited until 2007 to commit his interpretations to disc. Queyras needn't have worried, for his playing is never less than beautiful, eloquent, and thoroughly world-class. It fuses the most apparent characteristics distinguishing certain memorable editions: Schiff's shapely melodic parsing, Pergamenschikov's infectious feeling for the dance, Bylsma's period-performance innovations, and Tortelier's purity of tone.