Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 19 June 2017

Siècle Leonard Elschenbroich

Dutilleux Cello Concerto “Tout un monde lointain…”
Messiaen Quatour pour la fin de temps: V Louange à L’Étérnité de Jésus
Debussy Cello Sonata
Ravel (arr. Bazelaire) Pièce en forme de habanera
Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1
Leonard Elschenbroich (vc)
John Wilson, Stefean Blunier, cond
Alexei Grynyuk (pn)
BBC Scottish SO
ONYX 4173 (6940)

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The young German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich already has a substantial discography, but to date he has focused almost exclusively on Russian repertoire. So this disc is a significant departure, staking a sizable claim to the 20th-century French literature and including the most significant solo cello works by Dutilleux, Debussy, and Saint-Saëns. Elschenbroich has a distinctive approach and tone, his sound bold and assertive and his interpretations expressive but never overly sentimental. That combination works well in all of these works, even if programming them together does seem a little arbitrary.
The Dutilleux Concerto opens the program. Where many cellists and conductors explore this music’s textures and colors in a gentle, Impressionistic way, Elschenbroich and John Wilson go instead for clear lines and focused phrasing. The cadenza near the opening is a statement of intent, with Elschenbroich barely containing an irrepressible energy that soon propels the wide-ranging phrases and vividly conveyed unusual textures, particularly the pizzicato glissandos. The overall effect can feel a little dry, with Elschenbroich apparently emphasizing the music’s Modernist credentials over its clear Romantic influences, but, as with everything on the disc, the sheer conviction and musicality of the interpretation win through.
Two short fillers are offered to separate the more substantial works, the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and a cello arrangement, by Paul Bazelaire, of Ravel’s Pièce en forme de habanera. It seems a little ungrateful to complain about such generous additions, but they don’t add much to this program. Elschenbroich again takes an unsentimental approach to the Messiaen, and his plaintive, minimal-vibrato tone works well, but to take the piece out of context like this does the music a disservice. It seems to be included here to add gravitas, and ironically the results sound trivial, especially in light of Messiaen’s intentions for the work. I’d rather have heard Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” which would work equally well in the present program. The Ravel works better, in scale and character, with both Elschenbroich and his accompanist, Alexei Grynyuk, opting for open, expressive melody and clear, unfussy accompaniment.
The Debussy Cello Sonata is another work that well-suits Elschenbroich’s sound. Particularly attractive here is his narrow, reedy tone in the upper register, giving the music a lyrical, pained quality, fully atuned to the late Debussy aesthetic. Elschenbroich and Grynyuk make all of the textures here compelling and absorbing, the balance between the instruments always well judged, and the varied expression from the pianist never mere accompaniment.
The Saint-Saëns First Cello Concerto is highlight of the disc. Written in the 1870s, it doesn’t fit naturally into this program of 20th-century works, but Elschenbroich, now working with conductor Stefan Blunier, doesn’t over-emphasize the music’s Romantic heritage, preferring instead to project lithe, angular lines. That is not say that he does not give the big melodies their due, but he also treats Saint-Saëns’s complex development patterns with terse phrasing and tone. That allows him to project well over the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who play well both here and in the Dutilleux and never sound like they are being restrained for the cellist’s benefit. We hear some clicks of the bow and buzzing surface noise from the cello’s strings, which may be a result of close miking, but more likely are deliberate aspects of Elschenbroich’s very tactile sound. The cello playing here in the Saint-Saëns is as involving and elegant as in the earlier works, but you come away afterwards with the feeling that each of these pieces has been presented with a rare conviction and intensity. French music may be stereotyped for beauty of tone and lack of substance, but that isn’t how Elschenbroich sees it, and this disc makes a compelling case for his alternative vision. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:1.

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