Paul Tortelier

Elgar: Cello Concerto; Brahms: Double Concerto; Debussy: Cello Sonata

(CD - BBC Legends / BBC Music #42362)

Review by

Based on the bulk of the recorded evidence, there is no disputing that cellist Paul Tortelier has a superb technique, a burnished tone, and a deep dedication to the music he plays. Unfortunately, in this 1972 live recording of Elgar's Cello Concerto with Adrian Boult leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Tortelier seems unaccountably afflicted with a form of musical elephantiasis: his technique seems heavy, his tone baggy, and his deep dedication merely deeply tedious. The slow movements of Elgar's elegiac concerto sound ponderous and the quick movements sound perfunctory. There are moments of beauty here: the transition to the second movement is lovely and the last movement's mournful cadenza is suitably doleful. But despite the audience's noisy approval after its end, Tortelier's performance here can't hold a candle to his studio recording with Boult.

On the 1974 recording of Brahms' Double Concerto that follows, however, Tortelier returns to form with a muscular but sensitive performance combining buoyant rhythms with soulful melodies. Part of this improvement may be due to the fact that Tortelier has been joined by his son violinist Yan Pascal Tortelier, a player with not quite the same degree of mastery as his father but with the ability to elicit from him a performance of uncommon intensity and affection. Though the BBC Symphony under John Pritchard is not much more than professionally functional, Tortelier's performance surely deserves to be heard by fans of the English cellist.

The final performance on the program is a wan and listless 1959 account of Debussy Cello Sonata. Tortelier seems unable to summon the enthusiasm for the piece's elusive lyricism, and pianist Ernest Lush seems unable to do more than follow the cellist from bar to bar. BBC's sound is dull and gray in Elgar and Brahms' concertos and dim and distant in Debussy's sonata.

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