Donald Francis Tovey’s Cello Concerto

0 of 5 stars

Cello Concerto, Op.40
Air (Andante cantabile) for strings [arr. Peter R. Shore]
Elegiac Variations for cello and piano, Op.25

Alice Neary (cello)

Gretel Dowdeswell (piano)

Ulster Orchestra
George Vass

Concerto and Air recorded in The Ulster Hall, Belfast on 29 & 30 May 2006; Elegiac Variations recorded on 20 July 2006 at Champ’s Hill, Sussex

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2007
TOCC 0038
Duration: 67 minutes



Toccata Classics has already put us in its debt by issuing Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s expansive Symphony. Now comes the equally outsize Cello Concerto. Whether the longest of its genre or not, at 54 minutes (in this performance) it is obviously a work of considerable duration. Is it though one of musical substance?

The answer is ‘yes’. (But, there are doubts!) The opening is meditative; a plaintive melody introduces the soloist immediately. Tovey exposes his soul from the outset. There is a suggestion of Elgar, and Schumann’s introspective Cello Concerto comes to mind, too. More agitated material is introduced, something heroic is on the cusp of unfolding.

Tovey himself, in his written introduction (thoughtfully printed in the booklet), stresses the cello and orchestra relationship (he is from the era that called the instrument a ‘violoncello’, quite correctly of course; he would no doubt have been dismayed at our slovenly abbreviations), the cello (sorry!) a “calming influence against a tragic and stormy background.”

One might suggest that the first movement – however beautiful the ideas, and however skilled the writing – is a little too rhapsodic for a ‘first movement’ and long (25 minutes here); one might also wonder if this interpretation takes the ‘moderato’ marking a little too literally and that more ‘allegro’ would have made for a tighter structure. But that would maybe undermine Tovey’s largesse, and there’s no doubt that the performers here are willing to give the music space and room to breathe. Alice Neary gives a superb account of the solo part, hers is playing of real sensitivity and feeling, and charismatic beauty of tone – is she using gut strings? – while George Vass (who conducted Tovey’s Symphony for Toccata Classics) and the Ulster Orchestra give excellent support; there’s an affecting sense of chamber music being made.

There is though an alternative recording, one unfortunately not to this reviewer’s hands. It would (again) be interesting to hear Pablo Casals and Sir Adrian Boult perform the work from a 1937 concert performance; it is on CD, and my memory (from some time ago) is that the sound is fairly primitive (even for that year). For how did those musicians tackle the long first movement? Quicker and tauter than here is the suspicion (and, in the first movement, there isn’t too much that is “tragic and stormy”, although there is plenty of deep feeling that might be marked by tragedy). Which is not to criticise the present team of performers, for their belief in the work is palpable. Maybe Vass should have employed antiphonal violins, which Tovey probably would have taken as ‘standard’ and Boult would certainly have deployed.

Written for Casals, the first performance of Tovey’s Cello Concerto was in 1935; it didn’t go well, it seems – despite, or because of, the composer conducting – and Boult promised that the BBC would mount a performance (the 1937 one that is preserved). From the spaciously conceived first movement to another, the second movement Andante maestoso broods rather and is not without Imperialistic outbursts; the tone is now rather Slavic. The ‘Intermezzo’ that follows is another ‘slow movement’ – lovely stuff, again, but did Tovey miscalculate the music’s mien and proportions? The finale, amiable and joyful, is a welcome (hopefully not too late) counterpart; at 14 minutes it is to scale, but whether the ideas are ultimately distinguished enough to sustain the whole is a moot point. But how wonderful to have a modern recording with which to determine such a question.

The Elegiac Variations was written in 1909 in memory of Robert Hausmann (the cellist of the Joachim Quartet and a friend of both Brahms and Tovey). Casals and Tovey performed it together in that year. It’s a richly expressive 10-minute work that builds to an impassioned and sustained climax before subsiding; Neary and Gretel Dowdeswell play with rapport.

The Air for Strings seemed familiar. It is the ‘Aria’ from Tovey’s Aria and Variations, for string quartet, a work that I first heard (complete) 20 and more years ago in the BBC Radio 3 programme “The Innocent Ear” (which was devised by Robert Simpson, the identity of pieces only revealed after they had been played). Peter R. Shore’s transcription for string orchestra makes for a haunting miniature and the performance here is eloquent and beautifully shaped – really lovely.

The recorded sound involving the orchestra is first-class, the balance between cello and orchestra expertly judged. Less good is the sound of the cello-and-piano recording, the acoustic too generous and creating fortissimos edgy and aggressive. Presentation is exemplary, though: there are two essays by Peter R. Shore – one on Tovey and one on Tovey’s relationship with Casals – and, as mentioned, there is also Tovey’s own, invaluable, introduction to the concerto.

Tovey (1875-1940) was, of course, highly respected as a writer on music, and remains so, and although he saw himself primarily as a composer, posterity has deemed otherwise. Make no mistake, the Cello Concerto is a fascinating work that one wants to get to know better – and this recording now allows that to happen – and the Air is a jewel of a piece.

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