Style, with Sprinkles

Johannes Moser
PSA Audio

And have we got a dandy specific case for you this time: an exciting, great-sounding new recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto from Johannes Moser and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande led by Andrew Manze (Pentatone PTC  5186 570; SACD and download). It’s coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

The Variations were Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic nod to Mozart; they mix Romantic and Classic styles. Scored for a relatively small orchestra, Rococo nevertheless produces warm, plush colors—definitely Romantic. Tchaikovsky’s theme is more straightforwardly “Rococo,” i.e., Early Classic: a series of measured, symmetrical phrases, simple but about as folksy as Marie Antoinette in her Little Shepherdess outfit. The variations also hew closely to Classicism, producing a string of pearls tinged with melancholy. Moser’s performance perfectly balances delicacy and display. It’s easy to see why he won Special Prize at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition for his interpretation.

In terms of style, there’s even more going on. Moser has chosen to perform the original version, not the radically revised edition created by cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who premiered it in Moscow in 1877. Besides adding virtuoso detailing, Fitzenhagen eliminated one variation and re-arranged the order of the rest, destroying the composer’s carefully worked-out musical progression. As Tchaikovsky’s publisher put it: “Good God! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!” The Fitzenhagen version is still used by many cellists; Liszt loved it. But Moser gives us what Tchaikovsky wrote, minus the un-special effects. My 21st-century ears like it that way.

The case of the Elgar Concerto is complicated too. Many fans measure all performances of this work against Jacqueline Du Pré’s gutsy, larger-than-life 1965 recording. Moser doesn’t so much displace her version as simply glide over it. Lithe, dynamic, transparent, wholly convincing as instrumental drama, this new recording breaks free of the generic expressivity and Edwardian gravitas that sink some other efforts. (By now, cellists everywhere should know that attempts to beat Du Pré at her own game can end badly.)

This was Elgar’s last major orchestral work. It echoes the grief and loss of the Great War, of a vanished Empire. But Elgar had no premonition of his wife’s death shortly to come, no consciousness that this 1919 Concerto would be his creative farewell. Closer to the mark was Sir Adrian Boult’s remark that in the Cello Concerto Elgar “struck a new kind of music, with a more economical line, terse in every way.” Moser’s performance hints at a Late Style that could have been.

He has found sympathetic collaborators in Andrew Manze and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Their carefully prepared, remarkably unified performance sounds spontaneous nonetheless. Movement timings provide a clue, especially when compared with those of Du Pré or more recently Stephen Isserlis (who does seem to “get it” regarding Elgar’s Late Style). In every case, Moser shaves significant time off Du Pré’s landmark reading and usually off Isserlis’s as well. But never does the Moser-Manze account feel hurried. If anything, this slightly more Italianate, extrovert approach heightens coherence while sharpening the music’s emotional impact. (Manze pulled off a similar hat trick with the Brahms symphonies a few years ago.) This is how music is kept alive: performers continually refurbish the castles and apartments of the Great Works so that today’s audiences can continue to respond to them.
Read the rest of the review here