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Romantic Music for Cello and Orchestra

The cello, or violoncello, to give it is fuller name, is the second lowest pitched instrument in the string family, below the violin and viola but above the double bass. In construction it is not dissimilar to the violin, but it is larger and is held between the knees when it is played.

During the eighteenth century the cello increasingly came to supplant the viola da gamba in the orchestra and, having started with the function that the double bass now has in the orchestra, to provide the foundations, the bass line, it gradually developed into a solo instrument.

As one would expect from his extensive output, Antonio Vivaldi was one of the first to compose a significant quantity of cello concertos, and since then a large number of composers have contributed to the genre. All the same, it is not hard to find major composers who never wrote any: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky are among them. This should not be taken, however, to imply that there is no good Romantic music for cello and orchestra. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this CD will demonstrate.

Of the composers represented on this disc, the first, Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), is the least well-known. His father Johann, who was also a composer, played a major part in building up the Mannheim orchestra, the first great symphony orchestra. Carl himself was active at the Potsdam court and it is not inconceivable that his cello concertos were written in response to a commission from the cello-playing king, Frederick William II, who employed leading cellists at his court. He received three splendid concertos with delightful middle movements.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) lived to an incredibly advanced age for his period: no less than 77 years. He produced, moreover, one masterpiece after another until nearly the end of his life. This was surely because he enjoyed his work so much and seems to have possessed a good sense of humour. He spent much of his professional life with the Princes Esterházy in Hungary. There he served as director of music, with an excellent orchestra at his disposal, with which he could try out all his ideas. He was successful in everything he did, from his 104 numbered symphonies to his seventy or more string quartets. His two surviving cello concertos (of a probable three) are no exception. The Concerto in D major from 1783 is the most famous, and its slow movement is a masterpiece, one of the Haydn’s innumerable strokes of genius.

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was not only a composer but also a fine conductor and a brilliant pianist (his peerless recordings of his own piano concertos are, incidentally, available in the Naxos Historical series). Vocalise is the name of one of the best-loved pieces for cello and orchestra, even though, originally, it was literally a vocalise, a song without words. Here the cello takes over the vocal line with a beauty and euphony that few human voices can equal.

The cello is often used when moods of sadness or melancholy are called for. One might think that this would be an ideal precondition for a cello concerto by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). But no: we have to be satisfied with his Rococo Variations, which to a large extent seem pastiche-like and not ‘real’ Tchaikovsky. On the other hand, there are various shorter works in which we can recognize him all the better. Foremost among these, naturally, is the extremely beautiful Andante cantabile even though there is an element of cheating here, since the piece started life as the slow movement of the composer’s first string quartet. It sounds as wonderful as ever in this form. The Mélodie has its roots in the collection Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Recollection of a Beloved Place) for violin and piano, whilst the Nocturne was originally a piano piece.

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), not to be confused with the pianist Artur Rubinstein (1887-1992), was, like Rachmaninov, both a composer and a pianist. Like Franz Liszt, he challenged all comers with his virtuosity as a performer. He wrote six symphonies and five piano concertos but, like Pachelbel, Albinoni and Boccherini, suffered the misfortune of becoming remembered today mostly for a single, unpretentious piece. In Rubinstein’s case that piece is his Mélodie, originally written for piano but eminently suited for performance by cello and orchestra as well.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and, as a composer and teacher, one of the most influential figures in Russian music. His music is attractive, with a National Romantic character, and he freely continued to write in this style long after everyone else had transferred their attention to considerably harsher sonorities. Chant du ménestrel (Song of the Minstrel), composed in 1900, is one of the most beautiful pieces for cello and orchestra and is typical of its composer, whilst Sérénade espagnole (Spanish Serenade) is exactly what its name suggests, a charming musical account of a journey, with a marked Spanish flavour.

The best-known work by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is the colourful symphonic suite Sheherazade, but his most popular piece is probably The Flight of the Bumble-Bee, a brilliant showpiece that is performed on instruments of all kinds, ranging from the flute to the double bass. It comes from his opera Tsar Saltan, or, to give its full title, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, concerning Tsar Saltan’s son, the famous and mighty hero Prince Guidon Saltanovich and of the beautiful Swan Princess. The piece comes from the third act, when Guidon, in a distant land, is afflicted by homesickness when he sees a ship on its way to his father’s country. He asks the swan for help; she changes him, conveniently, into a bumble-bee, in which form he follows the ship home.

The Carnival of the Animals, with the sub-title A Zoological Fantasy, was composed in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), and was intended only to be performed at the carnival celebrations that year. It proved to be much more enduring than that, however, and has established itself as a repertoire piece both in concert and on disc. With due respect to the hens, tortoises, kangaroos and elephants, none of the animals has become as famous as the swan, whose majestic gliding across the water could scarcely be depicted more effectively than by the cello.

Antonín Dvo?×ák (1841-1904) must be one of the most likeable and warm-hearted composers in the history of music. That he received the success he so richly deserved is to a large extent owing to Johannes Brahms, who put him on the right track with encouragement and, for instance, recommended him to his own publisher. Dvo?×ák wrote a large amount of wonderful music but, perhaps, nothing more beautiful than his Cello Concerto, easily the most frequently played and recorded work of its type. In fact this is Dvo?×ák’s second work in this genre, but the first is only performed very rarely. In the slow movement we find the marvellous woodwind writing that is so characteristic of Dvo?×ák as well as a delightful cello cantilena, wholly irresistible unless you have a heart of stone.

Outside his native country Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was once known mostly for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and he was thought of as being too English to make an impact overseas. Much has changed in this respect, however, and now his two symphonies, Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto are often performed internationally, not least the Cello Concerto, of course, and it seems strange
Disc: 1
Kol Nidrei, Op. 47
1 Romance
2 Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major: Adagio
3 Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (arr. for cello and orche
4 Melodie for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 42, No. 3 (ar
5 Melodie in F major, Op. 3, No. 1
6 Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 19, No. 4
7 Chant du menestrel for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 71
8 String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11: Andante c
9 Tsar Saltan: Flight of the Bumble-Bee
10 Carnival of the Animals: The Swan
11 Serenade espagnole, Op 20, No. 2
12 Cello Concerto in B minor, OP. 104: Adagio ma non
13 Adagio
14 Kol Nidrei, Op. 47
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