Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.58
Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op.125
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 1-5 September 2008 in Grieghallen, Bergen
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: September 2009
CD No: HYPERION CDA67705
Duration: 73 minutes
Prokofiev’s friendship with Mstislav Rostropovich lies behind the transformation of his Cello Concerto, completed in 1938 and revised the following year, to the 1952 Symphony-Concerto, a carefully honed revision making more formal sense with a less-angular cello part. It proves fascinating to hear both works closely juxtaposed, for while they are barely a minute apart in length and use similar melodic material, the composer’s use of development and structure is markedly different. The Concerto, though far from the failure Prokofiev felt it was, feels lopsided, its ‘theme and variations’ finale nearly four times the length of the first movement.
Alban Gerhardt meets the fiendish solo part head on, and Andrew Litton emphasises the lean contours of the opening march with sardonic woodwind and beefy lower strings. This is highlighted by Prokofiev’s orchestration, heavy on clarinets and bassoons for a darkly coloured exposition. After the second movement – in which the strings sound scabrous, Litton keeps the tension running high, Gerhardt, brings out the similarities with Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet – the Concerto is firmly pointed towards its last movement, four variations on a deceptively simple theme bisected by interludes and a cadenza, in which Gerhardt shows impressive authority and revealing Prokofiev’s bittersweet lyricism. When the principal theme of the first movement returns the mood is baleful but gradually picks up, the cellist judging its emotional impact carefully, the final section ushered in by a huge glissando sweep from Gerhardt.
The revised work, Symphony-Concerto, has tighter confines of structure and a greater abundance of melody. The first movement has acquired its lofty theme for cello, confidently borne out, while the second has expanded into the substantial core of the work. Litton’s choice of tempos are ideal, particularly for the warning note sounded by woodwind at the ‘Meno mosso’ marking, while the lower strings and percussion add a real depth to the sound. The Bergen woodwinds make a fine unit, adding Prokofiev’s dark orchestral colouring but also a dash of humour where appropriate, and balance is well-judged, for while the cello dominates the work, the orchestra contributes much to Prokofiev’s thematic arguments.
The recording is close-set but not oppressive, though the first violins are notably backward in the mix. Symphony-Concerto has become a relatively familiar piece, and Gerhardt and Litton’s recording ranks among its best. With the Concerto alongside this becomes a valuable release.