Notes and Editorial Reviews
Souvenir de Spa. Fantasy and Variations on a Waltz by Schubert. The Barber of Séville.
Cello Concerto in b
Wen-Sinn Yang (vc); Terje Mikkelsen, cond; Munich RO
CPO 777542 (70:10)
Cello students and enthusiasts are apt to recognize the names of a number of famous 19th-century players who also composed virtuoso showpieces for their instrument. David Popper (1843–1913), Karl Davidoff (1838–89), and Julius Klengel (1859–1933) come to mind. But beyond them, one
probably knows that French cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme (1808–84) was the dedicatee of Chopin’s Cello Sonata and that he collaborated with Chopin in the writing of the
Grand Duo Concertant
for cello and piano, based on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera
Robert le diable
. Two other well-known cellists who were highly regarded in their own time, but whose reputations have since come to be tarnished by their meddling, are Friedrich Grützmacher (1832–1903), who made mincemeat of Boccherini’s B?-Major Cello Concerto, and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848–90), who similarly made chopped liver of Tchaikovsky’s
The one name most likely to be overlooked is that of Belgian cellist Adrien-François Servais (1807–66). Though he originally trained as a violinist, he made the switch to cello and quickly became a celebrated virtuoso on his adopted instrument, acclaimed by Berlioz as “the Niccolò Paganini of the cello.” Servais’s claim to a paragraph or two in the history books also rests on three other factors, one of them a questionable plus, his use of excessive vibrato. But he is also credited with being the first cellist to use an endpin to secure his instrument to the floor, and his spirit lives on in the 1701 Stradivarius cello he played and that now bears his name. It was played by cellist Anner Bylsma in his 1992 recording of the Bach suites, and is currently on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
As a composer, Servais was more prolific than the few recordings by which he is represented in the listings would suggest. He wrote a great many fantasies, sets of variations, and duos based on popular operas and tunes of the day by Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Auber, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and Wagner. Even the B-Minor Cello Concerto on the present disc is only one of as many as five concertos he wrote, but most of his works remained in unpublished manuscript form.
The Paganini paradigm was invoked so often in reference to 19th-century virtuoso performers that it lost much of its force
to describe the superlative state. Giovanni Bottesini (1821–89) was hailed as the Paganini of the double bass; Cesare Ciardi (1818–77) was dubbed the Paganini of the flute, but then so were Giulio Briccialdi (1818–81) and Louis Drouet (1792–1873). Other instruments had their “Paganinis” too. Ernesto Cavallini (1807–74), for instance, was known as the Paganini of the clarinet. I looked for but couldn’t find a Paganini of the tambourine or triangle.
All of these comparisons, often drawn by those who had never seen or heard Paganini, were based on hearsay and the perceived technical prowess and showmanship of the performer in question; they did not address matters of content and style. And that’s where the associations tend to break down. Servais was a bit later than Paganini, and he was Belgian. As such, he was closer in time and style to his younger compatriot Henri Vieuxtemps. The Franco-Belgian school of string playing was of a somewhat different ethos than the Italian school that gave rise to Paganini. Often overlooked is the fact that Paganini was the inevitable result of several generations of Italian violin virtuosos that extended back to Corelli, Tartini, and Locatelli, all of whom kept pushing the technical envelope.
Paganini was the grand finale, if you will, to that line of evolution; he personally taught only one student, Camillo Sivori, and he had no direct followers. Not one of the famous virtuosos of the later 19th century—Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, and Sarasate (to cite only three of the more recognized names) was Italian. Italy’s century-and-a-quarter-plus dominance as producer of violin virtuosos came to an end with Paganini and coincided with the rise of opera over orchestral and instrumental music. The baton, or bow if you prefer, now passed to Belgium, France, Hungary, Poland, and, in Sarasate’s case, Spain.
Servais was on the leading edge of this geopolitical shift. True, there are fireworks and high-wire acrobatics aplenty in these works for cello and orchestra. But there are also extended passages of both voluptuous and refined melody that allow the soloist ample opportunity to display the sustained singing qualities of his instrument; and, importantly, the orchestra now plays far more than a simple accompanimental role. Not only is there significant dialogue between orchestra and soloist, there is symphonic-like development and working out of musical motives and ideas. Not a single piece on this disc would be mistaken for Paganini or, for that matter, for anything Italian. This music is the product of a Franco-Belgian school of string playing fostered by the likes of de Bériot and Delphin Alard and that would eventually lead to Ysaÿe and players like Thibaud and Grumiaux.
Of all the pieces that cellist Wen-Sinn Yang has chosen for his Servais program, the one that comes closest to having some claim to name recognition is the
Souvenir de Spa
. I don’t know if Pablo Casals ever recorded it, but he certainly made an impression with it in an incident described in Richard Eckstein’s liner notes. Casals had gone to Brussels in the hope of studying under the conservatory director François-Auguste Gevaert, but the ageing Gevaert passed Casals off to the conservatory’s cello class being taught by eminent cellist Edouard Jacobs. Jacobs, a complacent and cynical man, decided to challenge Casals in front of the whole class to play Servais’s very difficult
Souvenir de Spa
, which the young cellist, to the amazement of all, dashed off without breaking a sweat. His acceptance to the conservatory was immediately guaranteed, but Casals was so put off by Jacobs’s attitude and the whole incident that he left Brussels in disgust.
Wen-Sinn Yang was 24 in 1989 when he was appointed principal cellist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. That would make him 47 today, so we’re not dealing with some young prodigy just out of the conservatory. He is a seasoned artist with an active international concert career and more than two dozen recordings to his credit, including major repertoire works for his instrument by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvo?ák, and Tchaikovsky. Almost all of them have been reviewed in these pages, most quite positively, including Yang’s cpo release of cello concertos by Carl Davidoff, reviewed by me in 34:2.
Since Yang possesses powers of technique, tonal opulence, and musical communicativeness in abundance and the playing by the Munich Radio Orchestra under the leadership of Terje Mikkelsen is top-notch, the only question you have to ask yourself is whether these works by Adrien François Servais will appeal to you. And the answer to that is, “How can they not if you love the cello and wonderfully tuneful, brilliantly virtuosic Romantic repertoire?” Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Cello, Op. 5 by Adrien François Servais
Wen-Sinn Yang (Cello)
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