The Great Leonard Rose Rises to the Occasion

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LEONARD ROSE / DVOŘÁK: Cello Concerto in B min. / Leonard Rose, cellist; Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Charles Dutoit, conductor (live: December 6, 1967) / SAINT-SAËNS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A min. TCHAIKOVSKY: Rococo Variations for Cello & Orchestra / Leonard Rose, cellist; Radio Luxembourg Orch., Louis de Froment, conductor (live: November 15 & 17, 1961) / BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 3* & 5.# BRAHMS: Cello Sonata No. 1* / Leonard Rose, cellist; *Nadia Reisenberg, #Eugene Istomin, pianists (live: *January 1973, #summer 1969)/ Doremi DHR-8038/39

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BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C. BRAHMS: Double Concerto in A min. / Isaac Stern, violinist; Leonard Rose, cellist; Eugene Istomin, pianist; Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell, conductor / Doremi DHR-8047 (live: July 13, 1966)

When classical lovers discuss the finest cellists of the 20th century, a few names are automatic: Casals, Feuermann, Piatagorsky, Starker, Tortelier, Rostropovich, du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma. Past that group, however, are a fairly large number of outstanding players who were just never “marquee names,” among them Enrico Mainardi, Frank Miller, Steven Isserlis, Yehuda Hanani and Zuill Bailey. Leonard Rose also fits that profile. A child prodigy, Rose studied with Walter Grossman, Frank Miller and Felix Salmond before graduating from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia ahead of schedule (age 18). At the age of 20 he became a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and Arturo Toscanini soon promoted him to assistant principal. A year later he became principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra under Rodzinski, then five years later was hired by Rodzinski to fill the same post in the New York Philharmonic.

Well known in America as a teacher at the Juilliard School of Music—Lynn Harrell, Stephen Kates and Yo-Yo Ma were among his many pupils—Rose’s solo career was relatively brief, but he spent many years as a member of the Stern-Rose-Istomin trio. I generally ignored their records while growing up because I was not, and still am not, a fan of Isaac Stern’s bland and faceless violin playing or Eugene Istomin’s fussy pianism. These rare live solo performances from the 1960s and ‘70s, given at a time when Rose was fairly well tied up with teaching and playing with the trio, give a good indication of just how fine a musician he really was. It also helps that he is accompanied on these recordings by excellent orchestras and conductors, the French l’ORTF Orchestra under a then-young Charles Dutoit, the Radio Luxembourg Orchestra under de Froment, and of course the Cleveland Orchestra at the time when George Szell reigned supreme. Rose is also very lucky to have the equally underrated Nadia Reisenberg as his accompanist in the first Brahms Sonata and the third Beethoven Cello Sonata.

What immediately strikes the ear is Rose’s quintessentially “American” sound: neither the light, airy tone of Tortelier or du Pré nor the rich, full timbre of Casals, Piatagorsky, Rostropovich or Ma. It’s a lean tone with a fast vibrato that almost strikes the ear as vibratoless. His intonation is perfect, his technique very nearly so. But more importantly, Rose plays with such deep feeling and emotion that one is immediately sucked into his vortex of sound. He clearly has the chops to cope with the difficult Dvořák Concerto without the listener worrying if he’ll make it through certain passages, but time and time again it is his intensity that cuts through the orchestral accompaniment and holds the listener spellbound. Listen particularly to the slow movements of the concertos: this is heart-on-sleeve playing of a type that has all but disappeared nowadays (although Isserlis and Bailey sometimes approach this level). It also helps that the engineer of these issues was able to draw out such fine, clear sound out of these old broadcasts. And, it almost goes without saying, Dutoit’s equally emotional outpouring in the Dvořák matches Rose so well that you almost don’t hear the music for the feeling that washes over you. It’s a performance that absolutely lifts you up out of yourself and puts you in a different space. (I should also praise the extraordinarily rich-sounding horn section of the l’ORTF Orchestra for their astoundingly beautiful playing. You simply don’t hear horns like this nowadays.)

Among the cellists I compared Rose to in the previous paragraph, you may note that I left out Feuermann. That was not meant to belitle Feuermann, who occupied a sound world entirely his own. Feuermann also had a relatively lean cello sound as opposed to a rich or an airy one, but the unusual sheen on the tone (which Zuill Bailey often achieves) made his sound silvery and shimmering. Feuermann also played with feeling, although not quite as much as Rose does here, but where he excelled over any cellist I’ve ever heard was his astounding technique. In this respect Rose comes very close—as did du Pré—but in my view, Feuermann was the greatest technician who ever lived.

But back to Leonard Rose. Listening to these recordings, one keeps scratching one’s head and wondering just how high his reputation might be in the world had he not devoted so much of his life to teaching and had played more solo concerts overseas. After all, England and the Continent are where major reputations are made, and it is abundantly clear to me that Rose was a major, major talent. Of course his teacher and mentor, Frank Miller, spent his entire life as an orchestral musician—I actually saw him play in the early 1980s as first cello of the Chicago Symphony during its Georg Solti period. Granted, the concertos presented here were performed in Paris and Luxembourg, but these seem to have been rare outings of this sort for Rose. Like his equally great colleague Reisenberg, he subjugated his outstanding talent to a life of teaching in America and playing chamber music. In the Saint-Saëns Concerto, Rose’s technique is so good that it almost does equal that of Feuermann’s own performance of this work with Alexander Smallens and the New York Philharmonic, and in terms of the conducting de Froment wins out (as do the superior sonics). Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations is really a slight work, without emotional depth, but Rose plays it with tremendous charm and élan.

As for the Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas, all I can say is that I wish the Beethoven set was complete, particularly if Reisenberg were the pianist. In the Brahms First and Beethoven Third Sonatas, this duo strike sparks with rhythmically acute and emotionally intense playing, taking these sonatas to an entirely new level. These performances were fairly late in both artists’ performing careers; except for a few rare outings with violinist Erick Friedman or her sister, Theremin player Clara Rockmore, Reisenberg spent most of her late years teaching, and Rose himself was also pretty much tied up at Juilliard. The Beethoven Sonata No. 5 finds Eugene Istomin in an unusually feisty mood, playing with more incisiveness than I remembered from the Stern trio recordings, but the overall effect of the piano part is choppier and less organic than the performances by Reisenberg. Just compare the last movements of Sonatas Nos. 5 (Istomin) and 3 (Reisenberg) for a very clear example of what I mean. Both play with rhythmic verve, but Reisenberg’s accompaniment is so much more varied in terms of touch and subtle moments of rubato. Sort of like comparing a very good pupil to his or her master teacher. There’s a moment at about 4:30 in the last movement of No. 5 where Rose and Reisenberg practically “roll uphill” together on the music—a simply astonishing moment that must be heard to be believed. It put me in mind of those moments when Toscanini would actually lift up his orchestras and make them sail through passages as if riding a wave.

I spoke earlier of Rose’s lean, pointed sound, but in the opening notes of both the Sonatas 1 and 3 he plays with an unusual depth of tone not heard in the concerto performances. This may actually be the greatest performance of the Brahms Sonata No. 1 I’ve ever heard in my life, bar none. As an encore, the duo repeats the third movement of the Beethoven No. 3.

The third disc in this newly-issued Rose tribute is a separate item, but from the same general period, consisting of two famous concertos—the Beethoven Triple and the Bach Double—under the baton of Szell. I always thought of Szell as a somewhat stiffer, less flexible version of Toscanini or Rodzinski, dependable and solidly musical but generally with a bit of stiffness in his phrasing, but in these live performances the stiffness is minimal and not intrusive. His shaping and pacing of the Beethoven concerto is just about ideal, but although Rose and Istomin play pretty well (particularly the cellist), Stern is often his usual faceless, uninteresting self…but not always. He does fall in with his colleagues when they stoke up the emotional fires here and there, yet when he does his upper range turns metallic. This is overall a surprisingly high-voltage performance from a trio which, as I said earlier, I didn’t like very much and certainly didn’t expect much from here.

But as good as the Beethoven concerto is, it almost sounds like a warm-up for the Brahms. Feuermann recorded this with Jascha Heifetz, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a very fine and quite musical performance, but here Rose and Szell drag Stern into their emotional orbit, once again forcing the violinist to play with greater intensity than he normally did. Aside from the remarkable televised performance that Toscanini gave with Mischa Mischakoff and Frank Miller, in which he integrated the solo instruments into an orchestral concept of the concerto, this is the most intense version I’ve ever heard of this piece. Indeed, I was so wrapped up in it as an overall musical-emotional experience that I scarcely noticed the soloists as such, even though they were always prominently featured and well recorded. Everything seemed to me part of one big, emotional projection of sounds, with climaxes as big and craggy as the Rocky Mountains.

All in all, then, this is a surprisingly vibrant tribute to a still-underrated cellist who needs to be taken more seriously by the world as a great, great musician.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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