Notes and Editorial Reviews
Daniel Lipkind (vc); Misha Katz, cond; Sinfonia Varsovia
LIPKIND PRODUCTIONS H01 (25:46)
Sometimes I’ve wondered how two famous, oft-quoted aphorisms can be so diametrically opposed in meaning. The two that come to mind are “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The first must mean if I go on a year-long sabbatical, readers will miss me; the second, if I stick around, they’ll wish me gone. Some, I suspect, wouldn’t notice or care one way or the
Listening to Schumann’s Cello Concerto once again after a long hiatus, I couldn’t help but ponder these two maxims, for I thought I’d be happy to renew acquaintance with a work I once loved, then came to dislike, and haven’t listened to in quite some time. What I discovered is that one of those sayings is false. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, especially if you had good reason for parting company with whomever or whatever you said goodbye to in the first place. Trust me when I say it’s not Daniel Lipkind’s playing. If anyone could patch up this troubled relationship I have with Schumann’s concerto, it would be Lipkind.
There are those who hold it to be the greatest of all cello concertos, greater than either the Dvo?ák or the Elgar. Perhaps that’s because it’s easy to take its songful, if droopy, lyricism and its morose moodiness as deeply profound expressions of Schumann’s depressed mental and emotional state. Or maybe it has to do with recollections of hearing the piece in the rarely performed, bizarrely reorchestrated edition with piccolo and harp by Shostakovich, surely no betterment of Schumann’s original orchestration, but being by Shostakovich, it no doubt adds another layer of Russian gloom to the score.
But the facts of the concerto’s creation tend to contradict the sense that it’s a weighty masterpiece reflecting the composer’s intense inner turmoil. For one thing, the piece was written in the space of two weeks in October of 1850, nearly six years before Schumann died, and perhaps as many as three or more years before his health and daily activities began to be seriously impaired by his encroaching mental illness. Moreover, according to a program note by Richard Rodda for a 2009 performance of the piece by Lynn Harrell at the Kennedy Center, “the Cello Concerto was a product of Schumann’s first, happy months in Düsseldorf.”
Second, Schumann didn’t call the work a concerto, titling it instead
Conzertstück mit Begleitung des Orchesters
(Concert Piece with Orchestra), suggesting something possessing neither the gravitas nor the formality of a full-blown concerto. As has been noted by others, the score’s opening, with its soft chords followed by undulating arpeggiated figurations in the strings over which the cello enters with its plaintive song, may have been influenced by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. If so, it’s Mendelssohn in a practically inert state. With a first movement marking of “Not too fast” and a second movement marking of “Slow,” it’s not until we reach the last movement, marked “Very lively,” that we finally break free of the torpor. The interesting thing is that Schumann’s “Nicht zu schnell” is not really that slow if one observes his metronome marking for the first movement of quarter-note = 130, but the habit for many cellists, including Lipkind, has become to take a much slower tempo that only exaggerates the dolefulness of the thing.
My problem with Schumann’s Cello Concerto—and to a great extent it can be heard in his Piano Concerto as well—is not so much with the solo part as it is with the orchestra. With a high degree of predictability, orchestral tuttis are constructed of short phrases that are stamped out repetitively in cookie-cutter fashion, which, to my ear, gives the score a kind of plodding, mechanized feel, like squares of chocolate marching down an assembly line on their way to being boxed.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with Lipkind or with Misha Katz’s stewardship of the Sinfonia Varsovia. It’s simply my reaction to a piece of music that, after hearing countless performances of it over the course of many years, I’ve come to realize I just don’t care for very much. But that’s my problem, not yours. In all candor, however, I must tell you that Lipkind’s tempos are even slower than the slowish tempos taken by others. Yo-Yo Ma, in his live 1985 Sony recording with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, takes 11:32 for the first movement, compared to Lipkind’s 13:04. But even Ma is slow compared to Alban Gerhardt, who takes only 10:48 to get through it. Peter J. Rabinowitz, who reviewed the Gerhardt in
30:6, cautioned readers, however, that those who prefer du Pré’s and Rostropovich’s “Big Statement” way with the concerto might find Gerhardt’s approach too brisk and lightweight. I have the Gerhardt CD, and given Schumann’s own metronome markings and what we know about the circumstances of the concerto’s composition, I think Gerhardt probably comes closest to the mark. For sure, his no-nonsense way with the piece doesn’t make a taffy-pull of it.
What Lipkind’s Schumann has going for it—and not to be minimized—are the same pluses evident in his performance of the Saint-Saëns concerto. He plays with stunning technical security and with a tonal bloom that projects confidence and authority. Yet there is no hint of a “me-first” virtuoso ego on display. I may not agree with all of Lipkind’s interpretive decisions, but there is never any sense that he is about anything other than putting his considerable talent to work in service to the music. The result is an intimate dialogue between soloist and orchestra in which many important details in the orchestral parts, often downplayed in other performances to provide the cellist maximum exposure, are here revealed with an almost chamber-like transparency.
Despite my reservations about tempo, which I’d be derelict not to mention, this is a radiantly beautiful Schumann Cello Concerto that is sure to pay generous rewards on repeated hearings.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Cello in A minor, Op. 129 by Robert Schumann
Gavriel Lipkind (Cello)
Written: 1850; Germany
Venue: Witold Lutoslawski Concert Hall of the P
Length: 25 Minutes 45 Secs.
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