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Cellists: All Over the Place Now

February 18, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

It was the late cellist Leonard Rose who said: "Violinists get engagements. Cellists get jobs, if they're lucky."

Indeed, it wasn't until the 1960s, when Jackie Kennedy brought Pablo Casals into the White House, and Mstislav Rostropovich, and then his prize pupil, Jacqueline Du Pre, arrived on the international scene, that the door began to open wide for cellists. But all three of them achieved some of their fame for extramusical reasons: Casals and Rostropovich because of their anti-totalitariam politics; Du Pre because as her fame grew her skills deteriorated, her body ravaged by multiple sclerosis.

With the subsequent ascent of Yo-Yo Ma, the cello went mainstream. The instrument found its accessible hero: an artist possessing tremendous technical brilliance and musicality, matched by an engaging physical and verbal presence. Ma's fee not being within the means of every impresario, other gifted cellists got their chance. As a result, today's audiences are willing to listen to an instrument that had been considered the province of at best gifted amateurs until well into our own century.

Cellists are all over the place now, as witness the following, culled from about a dozen worthwhile new releases received in recent months.

First, from Finland, comes representative work by the dean of that country's cellists, 50ish Arto Noras, and the upstart Jan-Erik Gustafsson, who is pushing 26.

Noras and his immaculately attuned collaborator, Bruno Rigutto, offer Beethoven's five sonatas for cello and piano (Finlandia 9887, 2 CDs), in performances of compulsive listenability. The two Opus 5 sonatas jump at the listener with a scampering vitality too often denied them, while the most famous of the sonatas, in A, Opus 69, is delivered with admirable breadth and lyricism. When, in the two late sonatas, Beethoven explores new harmonic worlds, Noras and Rigutto are with him every daunting step of the way, with playing that alternates menacing calm with lashings of fury.

Gustafsson makes improbably light work of the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, once regarded as unplayable by all but its dedicatee, Rostropovich, and a technical challenge even for him. But Gustafsson's ease of delivery, abetted by a gorgeously suave, buttery tone--in contrast to Noras' more brawny sound--doesn't preclude an ability to sound out the score's hard, sometimes angry heart. That tone, and a relaxedly lyrical instinct surprising in a performer of the 1990s, was made to order for the disc-mate, the Concerto in A minor by Aare Merikanto, a Finnish avant-gardist turned arch-conservative by 1941, when this easygoing piece (imagine the pastoral Vaughan Williams, but a few degrees cooler) was written. Gustafsson receives excellent support in both instances from the Finnish Radio Symphony, conducted by another impressive youngster, Sakari Oramo (Ondine 861).

Nathaniel Rosen gained international publicity when he won the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition, but he has been too little heard in his native Los Angeles since then. What we've been missing is indicated by his recent recording (John Marks 6/7, 2 CDs) of the cellist's Everest, the six unaccompanied Suites of J.S. Bach. Rosen conquers them with performances of dark-toned, probing intensity without neglecting to convey the dance inspiration of the quicker movements. The rhetorical grandeur of both the pioneering 1930s interpretations by Casals and the recent edition by Rostropovich are brought to mind, but without the revered Spaniard's Romantic indulgences, or the Russian's often sluggish tempos.

Yo-Yo Ma returns for a second recorded go at the core concerto of the repertory, Dvorak's evergreen marvel (Sony 67173). It comes a decade after Ma's maiden attempt, likewise for Sony, which was sabotaged by the inappropriately Bruckner-like heft of Lorin Maazel's conducting.

While Ma is better able to convey his affectionate, energetic interpretation now, he is again subverted by his conductor, this time Kurt Masur, who leads the New York Philharmonic with little appreciation for the energy of Dvorak's folk rhythms while reducing his colorful orchestration to varying shades of gray.

The coupling from the same artists is the Second Cello Concerto of Victor Herbert, a composer better known for lighter fare. The concerto, much admired by Dvorak himself, sounds like a rather faded, vaguely Brahmsian relic today. Ma treats it is as if it were the greatest music ever written, which is perhaps the only way ever to play anything.

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