Violin Concerto in D, Op.61 [transcribed for cello by Stefan Popov]
Romances – in G, Op.40 & in F, Op.50 [both arr. Popov]
Stefan Popov (cello)
Sofia Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 11 & 12 November 2006 in Bulgaria Concert Hall, Sofia
Reviewed by: Jens Fredriksen
Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: GEGA NEW GD 320
Duration: 63 minutes
This is not the only arrangement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and recently there have been one or two recordings of the composer’s own version for piano – an interesting work given only the occasional airing. Stefan Popov sees the work as a cello concerto and is certainly well capable of playing his creation – he even adapts Fritz Kreisler’s first-movement cadenza.
The orchestra makes a full-blooded sound – something like the bold quality found in Dresden or Moscow and the recording strongly emphasises this aspect. At first I was unsure about the overall balance – the opening timpani solo is very quiet indeed but as the music progressed it became clear that this is a feature of the playing. When the music is quiet the timpanist is very soft yet in full orchestral passages his instruments are well balanced and their timbre properly evident. These instruments typify the approach, which is within the Romantic tradition and this weighty post-classical sound is paralleled by the double basses. I should have liked more precise articulation from them but their presence is always imposing.
Turning to the woodwinds, they often sound very forward with a bias towards clarinet tone when they play together but again this is a matter of simply playing loudly in important sections, I believe that the recording engineers are presenting an accurate aural picture of what was going on in the concert hall.
This weighty sound represents a most suitable accompaniment for the cello and the conductor exploits this quality in an interesting manner. The first movement is particularly deliberate and the very exact articulation of the melodies underlines this – a spacious tempo certainly but the doggedly precise enunciation of the notes makes deliberation the whole essence of the reading. Throughout, the orchestra matches the phrasing and execution of the soloist very precisely.
To enjoy this music it is best to forget the Violin Concerto – true, that work shares all the tunes with the music heard here but with cello as solo instrument such an approach is surprisingly effective. What might in other circumstances have seemed didactic here gives a great feeling of confidence and purpose. Regarded as a cello concerto and ignoring its origins I found myself warming to this arrangement and luxuriating in the gorgeous sound it makes.
There are also a few advantages over the average performance of the Violin Concerto: for example, exactly halfway through the first movement there is a hushed ‘moonlit’ section that is sometimes pulled back in speed to a somnolent adagio. With Sian Edwards in charge, the music remains hushed and beautiful but it flows forward too, the slow basic tempo making the traditional stretching unnecessary here.
The finale brings a further element – in the violin version some of the passages are so high that the violin creeps into the area where harmonics might play a part. With the cello it is comfortable and mid-range, the tunes expounded warmly but not tensely. In fact “Beethoven’s Cello Concerto” turns out to be an easeful work played here in a relaxed manner. It is sonically very rich and the measured exactness of the interpretation is calming.
The two Romances, however, do tend toward the soporific in these arrangements. I have not always shared the enthusiasm of music-lovers for these pieces feeling that they were no more than chips from a great composer’s workbench. There is grace in the playing however and where the concerto occasionally exposed a hint or two of strain in the solo part – especially in the upper reaches – the soothing smoothness of these Romances in these eloquent arrangements brings the listener to the realms of indulgent bathing in sound – this is not food for the intellectual music-lover.
When I received this release I thought the whole idea to be eccentric but in fact by accepting the principal item as a cello concerto rather than regarding it as a substitute for the real thing, I received a great deal of pleasure from the treatment of Beethoven’s gorgeous melodies. Everything is warm: the playing, the interpretation and the recorded sound. As for the orchestra, well it may not match the top in Europe but I look forward to hearing it again.