Moser Plays Lutosławski & Dutilleux

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LUTOSŁAWSKI: Cello Concerto. DUTILLEUX: “Tout un monde lointain” (Cello Concerto) / Johannes Moser, cel; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Thomas Søndergård, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5186689

I exchange Tweets online with a very fine and well-known British cellist, whose work I admire, but who sticks exclusively to the old-timey repertoire. None of my subtle suggestions that he at least expand his repertoire to include works written in the first 30 or 40 years of the last century, let alone this one, meets with any reception. And unfortunately, that is where far too many classical musicians’ heads are at, because most of their listeners are just as reactionary and resistant to anything with dissonance in it as they are.

Happily, Johannes Moser isn’t one of these, and so we have here two very fine cello concerti written in 1970. If I have not responded much in the past to the music of Witold Lutosławski, it is because I hadn’t heard much that excited or interested me, but this cello concerto is clearly a fine piece. Innovative, surprising and yet well constructed, it runs its course largely by means of jagged, rhythmic shards played by the cello and occasionally by the orchestra, which is scored in a surprisingly thin manner. There are not only no “thick” chords or textures but, on the contrary, one is seldom aware that there are even strings involved. Winds and brass do most of the work, with the strings tossed in here and there for color but not as a basis of the orchestration. The slow second movement is brooding and mysterious rather than lyrical in the conventional sense, although it is here that one is more aware of a string sound—mostly basses and cellos rumbling underneath the soloist, with high strings playing glissandi passages in tandem with the brass and winds. More often than not, this is a solo piece for cello with a little ambient orchestral sound floating around it, not the kind of give-and-take between the two entities that you might normally expect to hear. An utterly fascinating piece.

At least part of the performance’s success must be credited to the Berlin Radio Symphony, which plays with masterful understatement yet also with extreme textural clarity. Of course conductor Thomas Søndergård is a big factor in this, yet the execution of the notes and phrases are made by the musicians, not by him, and they do a spectacular job. When the trumpets, trombones and tubas literally explode in the third movement, one is taken aback not only because it is so unexpected but also because the exemplary precision of execution plays into the music’s strength. Were the notes produced any less than perfect in attack or duration, the music would not have the same effect. Naturally, in such an environment, the solo cellist must also be playing with a rather edgy sound as well, which of course is not natural for purveyors of this instrument. Most cello music is soft, round and warm; it envelops you in its richness and beauty. Moser manages to maintain a beautiful sound even in the edgiest passages, but beauty per se is not his primary focus. Much to my surprise, this concerto has a fourth movement, which begins not merely slowly but pensively, throwing off much of the angst of the first three movements. Only after the tempo picks up and some of the strange dissonance returns do we revert to the unsettled nature of the first three movements.

By contrast, the modern French concerto of Henri Dutilleux owes much to Olivier Messiaen. Its textures are also transparent, but orchestrated in an entirely different manner. Both the cello and orchestra play much more lyrically, and there are at least hints of melody running through the work. Dujtilleux’s orchestra, though sparse, focuses much more on soft strings played against equally soft winds, and the basses often dominate. The “Enigma” of the first movement sets the tone for the rest of the concerto, plunging the listener into a fascinating sound-world, supremely evoked by Moser and the orchestra. In the later movements, however, the music becomes more agitated, pulling the cello into the orchestra’s vortex like a cyclone.

These are clearly great cello concerti, and it’s a shame that too few famous cellists take the time to learn and play them. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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