SEPTEMBER 2012 – MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL
The first thing that struck me about this disc is that while we may usually think of Brilliant Classics -well named in my opinion – only in terms of reissues of discs originally released on other labels this disc was recorded by them only at the beginning of this very year. In fact the sessions took place the day after New Year’s Day. The results reflect a real labour of love from a time of the year when most of us are still recovering from our celebrations!
The next thing to strike you is that this is a showcase for the cello being played here. It is the first time this particular and very special instrument has ever been recorded in its 312 year existence. That makes the disc something special even before you listen to it and this is confirmed when you do. This cello, one of the over 600 instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius that still exist, was once owned by Lise Cristiani, hence its name. Lise Christians (1827-1853) was the first female cellist of note. Even at the age of 18 in 1845 her playing had such an impact on Mendelssohn, who saw her in concert, that he wrote the Lied ohne Worte in D Op.109 (track 14) for her. They played it together in Leipzig on 18 October that year; I’d have loved to have been present at that concert! Lise had bought this cello from luthier Bernardel. It must have been expensive since even in Stradivarius’ day his instruments commanded large sums of money, enough to afford him an extremely comfortable existence, including a house costing £40,000. Lise toured all over Europe and sadly died at the tragically early age of 26 from cholera contracted in Tobolsk. This was during an extensive 40 concert 20,000 kilometre tour through Siberia (!) fulfilling her aim of taking music to places where no-one had had the chance of hearing it before. So then to the music.
The disc begins with Mendelssohn’s Variations concertantes in D, op.17. From the very first notes the richness of the cello sound is evident. It makes for a truly delicious experience; in fact the sound is so silky smooth you can almost taste it. The main theme is a beautifully mellifluous floating melody that the 20 year old Mendelssohn treats to eight variations, each showing the composer at his inventive best. The piano is no mere accompanist to the cello but shares the statements equally.
As the booklet notes explain sonatas were less popular in the 19th century than concertos, despite the impact that Schubert’s 1824 sonata for arpeggione and piano as well as Beethoven’s op.5 cello sonatas had had. Mendelssohn’s sonatas were the state of the art for that time and they led the way for sonatas for cello and piano. That is proven in spades on this disc and the opening of Cello Sonata No.2 in D Op.58 is surely so well known you can’t help smile at the recognition it brings. It was composed by the then 34 year old Mendelssohn, and dedicated to the Russo-Polish cellist Count Michal Wielhorski. The sonata was first performed with his sister Fanny at the piano. I’d have loved to have been present at that concert too as I’m a great admirer of hers. She had such an uphill struggle to be accepted as a composer even by her brother, though that sentiment appears not to have been extended to Ms Cristiani – I wonder why! The well known main theme which opens the sonata is revisited in the second of the four movements; the only one of Mendelssohn’s divided in such a way, and given in variation form. The third movement shows the composer’s love for and fascination with Bach in that it is a really gorgeous piano chorale, the cello being given some beautifully long held notes recitative-like. It is then accompanied by the piano which is made to sound so much like a harp with its ascending arpeggios that it is a perfect musical definition of the word “arpeggiare” which means “to play on a harp”. The final movement is bright and breezy rounding off a wonderfully judged and highly satisfying performance of this marvellous work.
The “Song without Words” written for Lise Cristiani as mentioned above is well named as it is quite literally too beautiful for words. It was composed in the same year as the Second Sonata and both give the lie to the belief held by some that Mendelssohn had lost his gift for a good tune by this stage. It is heartbreakingly ravishing. Written five years before the Second Sonata the First comes next on this disc. Iis there a technical reason for this as there’s only 1½ minutes difference in length. I’d much prefer to have them the other way round to see if I could determine how much he’d developed his skill between those years, though I doubt I could. He composed it for his brother Paul who was an amateur cellist before becoming a banker. It certainly doesn’t sound as if this was his first excursion into writing such a sonata. That said it was written for private performance and Schumann said that with its dignified nature it was “a sonata for the most refined family circle, to be enjoyed at its best, perhaps, after some poems by Goethe or Lord Byron”. This gives a whole different meaning to the concept that “in those days people had to make their own entertainment”. It certainly beats playing cards or draughts as my brothers and I did as children! Though it doesn’t have the same beauty as the second it is a lovely work nevertheless. The final piece on this disc is the short Albumblatt (page from a book) which is another heartfelt work that is beautifully simple and simply beautiful and which ends intriguingly mid-phrase.
Fortunately this fabulous cello is in the keeping of the Fondazione Walter Stauffer in Cremona but if it ever came up for auction and one was able to hear this disc as a supplement to its catalogue description then there would be an even greater number of would-be collectors encouraged to bid for it. Luca Fiorentini was very privileged to be loaned it and the magnificent Teatro Ponchielli was the recording venue. His playing is splendiferous and Stefania Radaelli is a dazzlingly matched partner for him. Together they have made a sumptuous feast of a disc that I can’t imagine could be bettered.
MusicWeb International – September 2012