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EXPLORING MUSIC: All in Good Taste/ Bylsma plays Virtuoso Cello Music

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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David Raymond


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You may think that the cult of the vir­tuoso cellist began in our own century with such figures as Pablo Casals, Rostropovich, Leonard Rose, and Yo-Yo Ma, but there were highly regarded and celebrated cellists throughout the 19th century as well. Like most virtuosi of the time, these gentlemen were also prolific composers of music for their own talented fingers. Five of the greatest of them are represented on this recording by Anner Bylsma, the Dutch cellist, who is very highly regarded in his own right.

Most of the cellist-composers represented here belonged to, or founded, families which specialized in such things. Auguste Joseph Franchomme, besides be­ing the most distinguished French cellist of the 19th century, was the friend, dedicatee, and even collaborator of Mendelssohn and Chopin. His Variations on a Russian Theme and Ecossaise, op. 6, is interesting not so much for the com­poser's skill as for the themes themselves. The theme russe bears some resemblance to Tchaikovsky's song "The Garden," the tune on which Anton Arensky based his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra (both of which were com­posed long after Franchomme's piece). The ecossaise ( or Scottish tune) is none other than the famous song "The Last Rose of Summer" (an Irish tune, to be picky about it), which sounds amusingly incongruous stuck in the middle of these Slavic variations.

Bernhard Heinrich Romberg, another member of a very musical family, was pro­bably the best-known of all 19th-century cellists. His Trio for cello, viola, and bass is a polite little work that not unexpectedly gives the cellist much more to do than his colleagues. The fabled lightness and grace of Romberg's playing can be deduced from the music, which successfully avoids soun­ding bottom-heavy.

A set of glittering variations on a popular operatic air was also an obligatory part of any virtuoso-composer's repertoire. Liszt's fantasias on tunes from popular Italian operas by Bellini and Verdi are touched with genius: a more sedate example of the genre is Justus Johann Friedrich Dotzauer's Duo concertant based on a theme from Rossini's William Tell (not the "Lone Ranger" theme, though).

Robert Lindley, though a busy soloist and orchestral musician in early 19th­-century London, made his greatest impres­sion as a theater-orchestra cellist, particularly for his imaginative (and to his critics irrelevant) improvisation in operatic recitative. The Grove Dictionary entry on Lindley gives a transcription of his "addi­tions" to a bit of recitative from Mozart's Don Giovanni that would certainly be frowned upon in our purist age! Lindley was the great friend and collaborator of the virtuoso bassist Domenico Dragonetti, which may explain the origin of the Duet for cello and bass. Its ingenuous themes and simple working-out make one wonder if Lindley would have taken the same liber­ties in performing his own music that he did with Mozart's!

The longest piece here is the Souvenirs de Spa by Adrien Francois Servais, a Belgian cellist who was praised by Berlioz for his ''Paganini-like virtuosity,'' and who was the father of two musicians, one a cellist ( of course), the other a foster son who was an illegitimate child of Liszt's. Scored for string sextet, Souvenirs takes its title seriously: after an agitated beginning, the music conjures up the elegant gaiety of a vacation at the popular 19th-century Belgian watering place.

If none of this music makes particular claims on your attention, it is pleasant enough when well-played, as it certainly is here. Having only heard Anner Bylsma perform Bach and Vivaldi on a period in­strument, I was surprised and delighted by the ease with which he takes to these lit­tle bonbons. Nothing is overinflated, everything is in good taste, and the com­posers' virtuoso demands are well met.

Review of Anner Bylsma plays Virtuoso Cello Music from the EArly Romantic Period Pg 57

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