CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2012)

Complete Decca Recordings
Decca 478 3577 (5 CDs) / *****

The 20th century’s greatest cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), recorded on many labels but the focus of this slim Decca box-set is on his friendship and partnership with Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Britain’s greatest 20th century composer wrote five major works for him, four of which are heard here in definitive performances. The Cello Symphony (1963) remains one of the great 20thcentury cello concertos, its pungent blend of dissonance and long-breathed poetry find a most sympathetic response in Rostropovich’s expressiveness and virtuosic playing. Britten himself conducts the English Chamber Orchestra. More intimate are the first two unaccompanied Cello Suites, which are Bach-like in their play on polyphony and intensity.

Britten is also the pianist in the more accessible Cello & Piano Sonata, his prowess as interpretive co-collaborator is confirmed in further sonatas by Frank Bridge, Debussy and Schubert (the lyrical Arpeggione Sonata), and Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style. Britten’s modern-sounding cadenzas for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major complete this unusually fruitful relationship between two sides of the Iron Curtain. The legendary 1963 Philips recordings of the five Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter come as a very generous bonus. Brief but illuminating sleeve-notes come from Elizabeth Wilson, Rostropovich’s former student and biographer. This set retails at $36.90 in HMV.  

KARLOWICZ Serenade / Violin Concerto
Warsaw Philharmonic / Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.572274 / ****

The fame and renown of Miecyslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909), however obscure outside his native Poland, probably lies with the fact he is the only composer of note to have been killed by an avalanche while mountaineering. A real pity, since this contemporary of Ravel and Respighi wrote such unremittingly melodious music that almost seems too old-fashioned for his time. The Serenade for Strings (Op.2) in four movements, his earliest orchestral work, has its models in Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and there are moments that remind one of Elgar or Grieg. The opening Marcheven looks ahead to the slow movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.   

The Violin Concerto in A major (1902) belongs to the old school of virtuoso violin concertos inspired by the virtuosity of violinists like Joachim, Sarasate and Wieniawski. Its 30 minutes pass by rather quickly, as its wellspring of flowing lyricism is immediately likeable. It also helps that the imposing opening theme returns at the end of the finale to round things up. Russian violinist Ilya Kaler, winner of the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition, provides a high level of polish and slickness to the proceedings. There is an older recording of this concerto by Nigel Kennedy (on EMI Classics), possibly now deleted, but this new one at budget-price remains competitive.