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CD Review

Concertos for Cello & Orchestra

Melodiya 1002380
Natalia Gutman, cello
** Oleg Kagan, violin
* USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
** USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
Recorded live at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 1981 (Prokofiev), December 25, 1981 (Brahms)
Melodiya MELCD1002380 73:01
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Russian cellist Natalia Gutman has had a distinguished career as a soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. Wife of the late Russian violinist Oleg Kagan (1946-90), her partner in the Brahms Double Concerto, and a student of Mstislav Rostropovich, she is often associated with the music of both Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but has not compiled a large discography during her career. She is still active and these live recordings of concertos by Prokofiev and Brahms are most welcome, since no other recording of either by her exists.

At times Gutman is somewhat understated in her approach to the very challenging Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto, regarded by many as the most difficult concertante work for cello and orchestra in the repertory. Listen to her cadenza in the huge second movement: she plays with enough bravura and captures the spirit of the music alright, but reins in her tone much of the time. Yet, she brings out a wealth of thematic detail here that I haven't noticed in any other performance. Also, take note of how she subtly builds toward the ending of the second movement, focusing more on a sense of foreboding and anxiety than on creating a big sound – and her way with the music here is as effective as in any other recording I know of. In the first movement she captures Prokofiev's plentiful lyricism with great feeling and keen attention to detail. Her finale is fine too: her phrasing of the main theme, particularly on its return in the latter half, is delivered with subtlety and feeling, and the comical, sort of drunken theme midway through is especially witty and sprightly.

Alexander Lazarev leads the orchestra with a knowing hand, though some of the playing can be roughhewn: try the tuba from 5:42 in the first movement, and also notice that throughout the work the brass often have a raw sound. Speaking of sound, the engineers recorded the cello close-up and provided a brightness to the soundfield that probably contributed to the rawness of the brass. That said, it's still clear and reasonably well balanced.

The Brahms Double Concerto, recorded the same year and in the same hall, has slightly better sound. There's a fine balance between the cello and violin, and the orchestra has good presence, though there is a bit of an edge to the strings. The husband and wife team work well together in this sometimes problematic work: both can dig in with biting attacks (try Kogan's slashing chords in the first movement beginning at 8:00 or Gutman's muscular entry at 9:03) or they can play with a silken tone (hear both caress the music gently from 11:05 in the first movement). Their phrasing of the second movement main theme is simply beautiful, and the whole movement is mesmerizing. The finale is colorful and lively in their hands, Brahms rarely sounding so playful and witty. Their tempo choices throughout the work are judicious, and Svetlanov, who could occasionally be a bit sleepy, draws a spirited performance here from the orchestra, who seem to play with more of a warmer sound than in the Prokofiev.

As for alternatives, in the Prokofiev Rostropovich made at least two fine recordings (EMI and Erato) and young Yujeong Lee turned in a convincing effort (Solo Musica SM171). In the Brahms David Oistrakh and Pierre Fournier on EMI offer a good brisk account, while Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott on Pentatone deliver a convincing more leisurely-paced effort. The performances on this new Melodiya CD are quite good in their own way and are especially excellent considering their live origins. All in all then, this is a fine offering from Melodiya, who must be credited with unearthing a very desirable pair of performances that most fans of string concertos should find to their liking.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings