Elgar and Bridge/Schwabe: Cello Concertos review – hugely impressive and refreshingly straightforward

·2-min read

Gabriel Schwabe/ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Ward
(Naxos)
A performance full of finely realised detail and lacking in bombast ensures these two great and contrasting British cello concertos shine


Two great British cello concertos, one extremely well known, the other inexplicably neglected, and both composed in response to the horrors of the first world war are featured here. For Elgar, his 1919 concerto proved to be his last significant work, while Frank Bridge’s “concerto elegiaco”, Oration, completed in 1930, was one of a series of pieces composed in the last two decades of his life – which also included his piano sonata, last two string quartets and the orchestral rhapsody Enter Spring – in which he went far beyond the Edwardian cosiness of his early works into an expressive world clearly linked to European modernism, and to the music of Alban Berg especially.

If Elgar’s concerto looks back wistfully to a late-Romantic world that war had destroyed, Oration looks forward, though without offering much hope that things are likely to get better. Bridge conceived it as a protest against the futility of war, a funeral address given by the solo cello with an acerbic orchestral commentary. The six sections of the impassioned single movement, 30 minutes long, still fulfil all the functions of a traditional concerto, including a substantial cadenza, and the music’s absolute refusal to find any glory in the carnage of war perhaps influenced Bridge’s pupil Benjamin Britten when he came to compose his Sinfonia da Requiem in 1939, just three years after the delayed premiere of Oration.

The performance by Gabriel Schwabe and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Ward is hugely impressive, full of finely realised detail, and lacking in bombast. And there is something refreshingly straightforward, too, about Schwabe’s approach to the Elgar cello concerto, a refusal to overstate its grandiose sense of tragedy, emphasising instead the tautness and economy of its construction, reinforced by the crisp alertness of the ORF orchestra. Some may prefer the heart-on-sleeve approach of more celebrated recordings, but Schwabe makes his own quietly eloquent case for Elgar’s work, just as he is a superb advocate for Bridge’s.

This week’s other pick

Two of the greatest string-orchestra works of the 20th century are brought together on Metamorphosis Notturno, the second disc for Naïve from Appassionato, the 40-piece string group directed by Mathieu Herzog. Chronologically, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen may be separated by almost half a century, but stylistically they are much more closely related, and while using such a large body of strings is not always to the benefit of either work, they go well enough together, separated here by Herzog’s own luscious arrangement of Respighi’s Il Tramonto, with the mezzo-soprano Adèle Charvet as the velvety soloist.

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