Wednesday, January 25, 2006

CD REVIEW: Truls Mørk — Schumann/Bruch/Bloch

This is a newly found review by Jerry Dubins of Paavo's Grammy-nominated album with cellist Truls Mørk and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France from Fanfare Magazine, originally published in its July/August 2005 issue.

SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in a. BRUCH Kol Nidrei . BLOCH Schelomo • Truls Mørk (vc); Paavo Järvi, cond; ORTF PO • VIRGIN 5 45664 (58:51)

Here are three classic masterpieces of the cello repertoire. None has been neglected, either in concert or on record, though the Schumann concerto, in particular, has been somewhat sidelined lately in favor of a spate of new recordings of the easier to love Dvořák concerto. As I listened to the achingly beautiful opening melody sung by the cello in Schumann’s valedictory song, I wondered why this was so. But then it came back to me. Schumann’s Cello Concerto exemplifies all that is best and worst in his works—a melodic and harmonic richness of radiant beauty hobbled by a weak and diffuse developmental instinct, wherein repetition too often substitutes for genuine working out of ideas. Given the raw material, he lacked the ability to shape and mold it into a coherent argument. Whether this was in any way related to the advancing state of his mental illness by the time he came to compose the Cello Concerto in 1850, I am not in a position to say. But I can say that the weakness that was always there is more pronounced in this very late work than it is elsewhere. As beautifully as it begins, it quickly becomes mired in its own lugubrious longueurs . Note writer Philippe Mougeot describes it as "a long elegiac monologue for cello," and refers later to its "meandering" character. None of this is to say that the piece is without its exquisite moments, the transition from the slow Langsam movement to the Sehr lebhaft finale being especially mysterious and magical, and finding a close parallel in the equally breathtaking transition to the last movement of his Fourth Symphony.

That said, a new recording of the piece was probably overdue, and this one with Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk is very welcome indeed. His phrasing of the opening melody alone is worth the price of the disc. Never have I heard it quite so beautifully teased and spun out, with subtle rubato and inflections of tone and dynamic shading that go right to the heart. Though there are not as many opportunities in the Schumann for pyrotechnics as there are in other cello concertos, Mørk neither downplays nor overplays the few moments (mostly in the last movement) of virtuoso display the score allows, demonstrating understanding and respect for the overall context of the work.

Max Bruch (1838–1920) is, in my opinion, one of the most underestimated of all the post-Brahms, late-Romantic German composers. Beyond his G-Minor Violin Concerto, Scottish Fantasy, and the Kol Nidrei heard on this disc, his output of symphonic, orchestral, chamber, and choral works is barely known. And what wonderful works they are. Bruch was not Jewish, though his Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra has become one of the most famous and beloved of "Jewish" pieces. Kol Nidrei is the prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur , the holy Day of Atonement; and the falling melody with which it begins symbolizes, musically, the falling of the supplicant to his knees. The melody itself is not of Bruch’s invention. It is not even known for certain who wrote it or when, though most likely it had its origin in the 17th- or 18th-century European cantorial tradition. It is, however, a melody that lends itself well to improvisatory treatment. The idea for an elegiac rhapsody for cello based on this melody apparently came to Bruch through his acquaintanceship with the Lichtenstein family, a Jewish family living in Berlin. The work was dedicated in 1880 to the Jewish Society in Liverpool, where Bruch was conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic from 1880 to 1883. An observation of my own that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere is that Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, given its date of composition, was a brave and risky political statement. It was a time when anti-Semitic polemics were being circulated, and many important figures in the German musical establishment were railing against the corrupting Jewish influence on the purity of German music. That a German Protestant composer (Bruch) should have associated himself with Jews and their corrupting influence might easily have blackballed him in his native German musical circles.

Bloch’s Schelomo, like the Schumann concerto, has also been a bit neglected of late, but likely for different reasons. I suspect it’s because cellists have felt somewhat embarrassed at the prospect of programming a piece that elitists tend to view as Cecil B. DeMille, Ben-Hur, Hollywood kitsch. Admittedly, the work was a product of Bloch’s youthful exuberance, but it enjoyed enormous popularity for many years. If one can peel back the layers of retroactively accreted celluloid images to get to the core of Schelomo, it can be appreciated for the fine piece of handiwork it is. To a certain extent, Schelomo became Zara Nelsova’s signature piece, and her recordings of it with Ernest Ansermet and with Abravanel are still electrifying. But Truls Mørk need not take a back seat or make any apologies for his slightly lower voltage approach. If Nelsova emphasizes the ancient Israeli king Schelomo (Solomon) as the young dynamo who, all in a day’s work, built the Temple in Jerusalem, ordered a baby cut in half, and, we are told, had a dalliance with the Queen of Sheba, Mørk portrays an older and wiser Solomon, the sage who authored many of the Psalms and, it is thought by some, the Book of Ecclesiastes : “to everything there is a season . . . a time to be born, and a time to die . . . there is nothing new under the sun . . . all is vanity.”

This is a gorgeous recording for which well-deserved credit goes not just to Mørk, but to Paavo Järvi, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and to Virgin Classics. Very strongly recommended.

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