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CD of the Week – Elgar’s Cello Concerto

By (March 28, 2012) No Comment

Elgar: Cello Concerto

It is striking how few cellists have left a mark on the Elgar concerto since Jacqueline du Pré’s first recording with John Barbirolli in 1965 (her second, with Daniel Barenboim, was blighted by illness). Among contenders of little residue are such big personalities as Yo Yo Ma, Truls Mork, Heinrich Schiff and Slava Rostropovich.

Several British cellists have had their quirky way with the piece but only two, Steven Isserlis and Natalie Clein, added contemporary edge. The road is wide open for a new cellist to claim ownership of the Elgar and for a long stretch of Paul Watkins’s fresh performance on Chandos I was prepared to be persuaded that he might be the one.

Watkins, the Emerson Quartet’s new cellist, understates the opening attack, avoiding Du Pré’s raw aggression and, no less awkward, the forced serenity of Pau Casals. His measured tread opens out onto the familiar rolling landscape of Elgar’s England, only now it is a land stripped by war of youth and pride. The sorrows are strong and near, here and in the slow middle movements. The playing is lyrical and the image heart-rending. In the finale, however, understatement comes unstuck and the listener is left craving resolution, clarity and a promise of continuity. At the end, one is not quite sure where Watkins stands on the central issue: will there always be an England?

Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic provide close support to the soloist but no real challenge. The concerto battle of one against all modifies into a very English consensus. This fine and memorable performance might have been finer still with a conductor who was prepared to fight his corner.

The companion pieces on disc – Introduction and Allegro, Elegy for strings and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches – are irreproachably done, though the bombast of the marches drums the introspection of the cello concerto sadly out of mind. Blame lies again with the conductor; the cellist deserves all available stars.

Three Schubert CDs

Symphonies 1&2

David Zinman made a name for the Tonhalle Orchestra with finely-wrought cycles of the Beethoven symphonies. Schubert, though, is another matter. The early works are little known and, by Schubert’s standards, of limited invention. The Tonhalle run rings around its pretty tunes.

String quartets 13, 14

The Wihan quartet are nearing the end of a formidable cycle, recorded live in Prague and miked too close. They have more to say in the Rosamunde Quartet than in the over-worked Death and the Maiden, but the plying throughout is excitingly taut.


Camilla Nylund is one of the sprightlier sopranos on the opera stage, with a voice that is full-on in Strauss and a little rich for Schubert. The compensating virtue is a high trill that lights up the slighter numbers and gives pesky Gretchen a good run on her wheel. Paul Rivinius accompanies and Marion Schwebel’s sound is exemplary.

Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.