Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Dutilleux Cello Concerto Emmanuelle Bertrand

Dutilleux: Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher
Debussy: Cello Sonata
Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain (Cello Concerto)

Emmanuelle Bertrand cello
Pascal Amoyel piano
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester
James Gaffigan conductor
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902209
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Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto has been well served on disc, both in the number and quality of recordings available. Even so, this new version from Emmanuelle Bertrand stands out. Bertrand has an attractive and distinctive tone that is ideal for Dutilleux’s music, always focussed and deeply lyrical. Vibrato is used sparingly, and is all the more effective for it. Her dynamics go to extremes, and she has an impressive knack for making quiet music atmospheric without ever becoming indistinct.
The superior audio from Harmonia Mundi does Bertrand many favours.  It also allows us to hear the scintillating array of colours in Dutilleux’s orchestral writing. The balance between cello and orchestra is particularly impressive, a combination, no doubt, of Bertrand’s projection, conductor James Gaffigan’s sensitivity and the engineers’ skills. The recording joins a long list of impressive renditions, going all the way back to dedicatee Rostropovich. Bertrand stands up well to such comparisons, her distinctive tone bringing real personality to the performance, and the audio quality superior to any other version I’ve heard.
The programme is unusual but effective. It begins with Dutilleux’s solo work Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, before moving on to the Debussy Cello Sonata, and finally the Dutilleux concerto. The continuity between the works is impressive, and when the concerto begins, with just the cello alone, it feels like a transition between the two composers. That said, the ending of the concerto is a slightly indecisive way to end a programme, more a whimper than a bang.
Microphones are placed close in the recordings of the chamber works, and heavy breathing is sometimes heard, but the cello tone that results is close to ideal. There are some scratchy sounds in the louder passages of the Strophes, but they quickly pass. The Debussy is given a very fine reading, warm and lyrical but never sentimental. And again, ideal balance. It sometimes sounds like the piano is being suppressed, especially the big chords in the upper register, but the intended effect is achieved: the ear always follows the cello line.
Excellent liner notes from Pierre Gervasoni (look out for his Dutilleux biography later this year) tell us that the composer was a lifelong devotee of Pelléas et Mélisande, a work that leaves clear traces in the Cello Concerto. He also tells us that one of Dutilleux’s earliest pieces was a suite for cello and piano, which might have made a more obvious choice for this disc over the Debussy. No complaints though – the Debussy is a real highlight. As so often with Harmonia Mundi, actually finding the track information in the packaging can be difficult, and the ordering of the works is made all the more confusing by the fact that they are listed in the order concerto–Strophes–sonata on the back cover. Short running time might be another complaint, only 48 minutes. But recommended nevertheless, as much for the Debussy sonata as for the Dutilleux concerto.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Jacob Shaw Debut

Jacob Shaw Debut

Brahms: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
Britten: Cello Suite No. 3
Shaw: A Brit in Denmark
Bloch: Prayer
Wallensbourg: Persian Samā
Casals: El Chant dels Ocells
Wang Liping/Henderson: Song of the Burial of Flowers
Jacob Shaw cello
José Gallardo piano

Jacob Shaw is a young British cellist based in Copenhagen, and, as the title makes clear, this is his debut recording. It’s really two albums in one: The first disc, which was recorded in 2009, is devoted to the Brahms Cello Sonatas, while the second, which is more recent, offers more adventurous fare, the Britten Third Suite and some folk tune arrangements from around the world. It all adds up to a fascinating portrait, and gives a rich and varied picture of the artist.
Shaw’s tone is rich, but has a distinctive woody quality which he uses to valuable expressive effect. It allows him to sound intimate, even at louder dynamics and in fast music. It is not a lyrical sound, as such, but it never impedes the melodic flow. That is particularly evident in the Brahms, where the focus of his sound keeps the ear’s attention with the cello, even when set against complex accompanying textures. Shaw, and pianist José Gallardo, give expressive but disciplined readings of the two sonatas, finding an ideal balance between the Romantic language and the Baroque allusions. Audio quality, here and on the second disc, is excellent, although there is some peak distortion on the piano at some of the climaxes, a mastering issue perhaps but only a minor irritation.
The second disc is the more interesting of two, both for its unusual programming and for the insights it offers into Shaw’s musical tastes. The Britten Third Suite invites comparisons with Rostropovich, for whom it was written, and indeed, Shaw’s tone and musical sensibilities often call Slava to mind. The austere beauty of Britten’s music is powerfully conveyed, without any histrionics or excess; this is playing of impressive maturity and assurance.
The second disc is rounded out with folk songs arranged for cello. A Brit in Denmark is Shaw’s own arrangement of Scottish and Danish songs, and is followed by Persian, Jewish and Chinese songs as well as Casals’s popular El Chant dels Ocells. It is a tribute to the distinctive quality of Shaw’s playing that a consistency is maintained across this diverse collection. The Chinese work, Song of the Burial of Flowers, features traditional Chinese instruments (guqin, pipa, guzheng, yangqin, erhu), as performed by musicians from the Music Confucius Institute. The cello fits seamlessly into this ensemble, although it is a surprising soundworld in which to sign off the album.
As with everything else here, the Chinese track has an autobiographical dimension. The notes tell us that Shaw has recently been appointed International Music Ambassador for Dulwich Music College International (Asia), and that the Music Confucius Institute, which supplied the Chinese instrumentalists and provided financial support for the recording is at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. This album therefore represents the sheer diversity of a thoroughly international career (it was recorded in two countries as well, Germany and Denmark). All round a very satisfying listening experience, but particularly recommended for the Britten, music that seems perfectly suited to Shaw’s tone and temperament.