Walton's Cello Concerto - the world première: "Piatigorsky is almost beyond praise"
Gregor Piatigorsky's cello sounds superb in these new XR remasters of Boston classics
All Downloads includes PDF score of the Dvorák Concerto
1. "First of all I must say how glad I am that Walton’s ’Cello Concerto is at last available on records in this country. I don’t think that it is an entirely successful piece: in the first and second movements he manages to give a convincingly fresh treatment to material that has fascinated him ever since the Viola Concerto of 1928-9, but l am more than ever sure that the third movement is broken-backed; it is in the form of variations-plus-coda, but the two longish passages for the solo ’cello do not keep the argument going, and there is no inevitability about the return of the main theme from the first movement, only a feeling that Walton could not think of anything better. Nevertheless it is an accessible work by a distinguished composer, and the British public should not have had to wait so long for a recording of it that has been available for some time in America.
Unfortunately I have to modify this welcome straightaway with a complaint about the recording—a complaint that I am getting as tired of making as I am sure you are of reading. Piatigorsky is throughout made to sound as close to us as he would be to the conductor in the concert-hall, and the result is a completely unnatural balance between soloist and orchestra. It is not that we don’t want to hear the details of Piatigorsky’s magnificent playing; they are well worth listening to, and I am sure that professional ’cellists will be torn between envy and admiration at the masterly way he deals with the technical difficulties Walton has provided for him. But neither this concerto nor Schelomo on the other side is a mere display piece. To over-emphasise the soloist’s contribution in this way ruins the continuity of the musical argument, and I am driven to the conclusion that whoever agreed to this microphone-balance had no real understanding of the music.
Against these mechanical faults (and one or two others, such as obvious tape-joins and changes of level) must be set the quality of the performance, and as I have already suggested, Piatigorsky is almost beyond praise. It was he who commissioned this concerto in the first place, and he gives the impression of loving every note of it. The orchestral playing is also technically as good as one would expect, and if there is a certain lack of sensuous warmth about it this may well be the fault of the recording. Schelomo demands the very greatest intensity from the strings at climaxes, and that is certainly what we get here. All in all, then, this is a record that is well worth having for the sake of the music and the performance, but one that could have been much more pleasing to listen to."
J.N., The Gramophone
2. "My second Boston disc features the distinguished Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky as soloist in a first recording of a work written for, and dedicated to, him—Walton’s Cello Concerto. It was recorded on January 28th, 1957, three days after the first performance, and has all the freshness of inspiration that characterizes premiere recordings. Both Munch and Piatigorsky seem tuned to Walton's bitter-sweet lyricism and the Boston strings in particular play most beautifully, especially in the third movement, an ‘improvisational’ set of variations (which last as long as the first two movements put together) with a haunting epilogue. The sound is remarkably good and much better than on the LP.
The coupled Dvorak Concerto, which establishes a very close rapport indeed between conductor and soloist, is less well balanced. Here, the microphones are rather too close to the cello, revealing that the soloist’s intonation is not always quite immaculate. That said, the whole performance has an introspective poetic feeling, of music being born on the wing as it is played, which is not to imply any lack of ardour. The orchestral sound is vivid and, again, the remastering is impressive."
Piatigorsky's recording of Willam Walton's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, which the cellist had commissioned and given the work's first performance of just days before this recording was made, also with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Munch was criticised at the time for its recording balance - the Gramophone's reviewer noting that: "Piatigorsky is throughout made to sound as close to us as he would be to the conductor in the concert-hall, and the result is a completely unnatural balance between soloist and orchestra." I am inclined both to agree and disagree with this diagnosis - the balance between soloist and orchestra is good, in my opinion, yet Piatigorsky does sound curiously exposed in the original.
This, I believe, is partly a result of the tonal balance of the recording cutting some of the lower-end warmth of the cello, leaving it a little disembodied, thin and stark. It's also a rather dry recording, thus exacerbating this problem - like the human voice, the cello responds well to complementary acoustic resonances in the performance space, and here they were lacking, leaving the instrument sounding rather disconnected. These are both shortcomings I've tackled in this XR remaster, and I think most listeners will agree that a most delicious sound is the result - lively, crisp and well-balanced.
The Dvorák, although a more successful recording to begin with, saw similar criticisms upon its release, and here we find similar improvements in top end clarity and lower-mid warmth - especially in the solo cello - as well as overall balance perception.
CD cover to print