Notes and Editorial Reviews
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Zara Nelsova hailed from a musical family; her grandfather was an opera singer, her father a flautist, and her two sisters took up the violin and piano. In 1928 the family moved to London, and the ten year old Zara entered the London Violoncello School. She also had some private tuition from John Barbirolli, who started his career as a cellist. A year later the three sisters formed ‘The Canadian Piano Trio’, which lasted for ten years, travelling quite extensively all over the world. At thirteen Zara performed the Lalo Cello Concerto under Sir Malcolm Sargent. When war broke out, she returned to Canada, and took up the post of principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Her greatest influences at the time were Casals, Feuermann and Piatigorsky. She was fortunate to be able to study for six weeks with Casals at the Prades Festival in 1948. By the 1950s Nelsova’s career had reached its peak, and she was dubbed ‘Queen of Cellists’. It had been something of a struggle for her establishing a career as a female in a male-dominated arena. In 1953 she took American citizenship, and from 1962 taught at the Juilliard in New York and the Royal Academy of Music in London. She formed a close friendship with the composer Ernest Bloch, who composed works for her, and she became a great interpreter of his music, especially of the three Solo Cello Suites. Unfortunately, the composer isn’t represented in this compilation, though she did make studio recordings of his music, including three versions of Schelomo.
A decade before this Dvo?ák was taped, Nelsova set down a mono recording with Josef Krips and the LSO in the Kingsway Hall, London, issued on CD in Decca’s Original Masters box. Tempi in this RIAS recording are slightly brisker, and the opening movement has more of a spring in it’s step. Krips is too held back for my taste. Nelsova seems to respond with warmer playing, being swept along by the more inspirational conducting of Georg Ludwig Jochum. Even brisker is the version she recorded for Vox (1974) with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Walter Susskind, again preferable, in my view, to the Krips’. The Schumann Concerto, again under the baton of Georg Ludwig Jochum, is an impassioned and technically accomplished affair. Despite the orchestration being sparse and exposed in places, the conductor points up the orchestral gems that lie within to alluring effect.
Nelsova never made a commercial recording of Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 49, though a filmed version exists on VAI (DVD 4370) in which she is partnered by the Ochestre de Radio-Canada under Alexander Brott. The performance here is given with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Gerd Albrecht. This is music which deserves to be better known. It is full of gorgeous tunes and is very pleasing to the ear. The performance exudes confidence and excitement. Two extrovert outer movements frame a Largo. Nelsova’s heartfelt rendition of the slow movement has a soulful quality, and this contrasts with a finale which is energized and high-spirited. There’s a Russian flavour to the music, successfully captured in this truly compelling reading. The VAI DVD also contains an alternative version of the Boccherini Cello Sonata No. 4, accompanied by John Newmark. In the version here, the pianist is Lothar Broddack. It’s a two-movement work, an Adagio followed by an Allegro. Nelsova draws a rich burnished tone in the opening movement, and the Allegro is exquisitely phrased and articulated.
Unlike Jacqueline du Pré, Nelsova to my ears is a player who generally keeps her emotions under wraps. Never one to over-gild the lily, I feel that the Schumann Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 are too reined in and maybe would have benefited from a little more passion and involvement à la Maisky and Argerich. Running for only thirteen minutes, the Milhaud Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 136 is a little charmer. The opening movement marked ‘Nonchalent’ is exactly that, and breezes along without a care in the world. The sombre, funereal Grave offers a suitable contrast. A joyous romp of a finale sets the seal on a winning performance.
As far as I can ascertain, the three Bach Solo Cello Suites we have here are the only examples of these works in the cellist’s discography, however, she did record Bourrées I and II from the Third Suite, BWV 1009 for Decca in April 1955. What particularly attracts me to these Bach performances is that tempi seem to be just right. There’s rhythmic flexibility and instinctive contouring of the line. Brandishing a commanding technique, intonation is faultless throughout. I have no doubt that she would have picked up a few tips from Casals from ten years earlier at Prades, as these are probing, spiritual and sublime accounts. I’m particularly enamoured of the way she contrasts the dark undercurrents of BWV 1008, with the upbeat character of BWV 1009. Her big, sonorous tone is ideal for this music and listening to these traversals makes me regret that she never recorded a complete cycle.
In 1956, Nelsova recorded the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas with the Polish pianist Artur Balsam, which are included in the Original Masters box. A few years later she taped three of them for RIAS, the Op 5 Nos 1 & 2 with Lothar Broddack and Op. 102 No. 2 again with Artur Balsam. Though cast in a similar interpretative mould, the RIAS recordings have a much warmer glow and immediacy. I also find Balsam more sympathetic and engaging than Broddack, probably the result of their previous collaboration. In the Brahms Sonatas, Nelsova is paired with Balsam in Op. 38, and Broddack in Op. 99. Both are idiomatic, evenly measured and stylish performances. Nelsova’s rich, full-bodied tone is ideal for this music, and she projects well. Once again, I do prefer Balsam’s artistry over Broddack’s.
Audite have worked wonders in the re-mastering of these original analogue tapes, injecting new life into them. Sound quality throughout is first rate. Norbert Hornig has provided informative annotations in German with English translation by Viola Scheffel. This attractive set should adorn the shelves of any lover of great cello playing.
– MusicWeb International (Stephen Greenbank)