Following in the line of infamous virtuoso composer/performers from Paganini to Liszt, cellist David Popper was active not only in his role of exploring the capabilities of his instrument, but also as an important pedagogue. Nary a single advanced student cellist is able to escape his infamous "High School" etudes. Popper's compositions extend beyond demanding etudes, however, although his more "serious" pieces are infrequently performed. Cellist Wendy Warner, attempts to bring to life three of these pieces on this Cedille album. Warner is easily able to toss off the technical obstacles that Popper throws up in his Suite for Cello and Piano, Three Pieces, Op. 11, and "Im Walde," Op. 50. But despite the assertion in the liner notes to the contrary, these pieces are not exceptionally fulfilling musically. Warner does all she can while avoiding the mistake of overemphasizing musical features and trying to make the works into more than they really are. Cellists will no doubt appreciate her technical brilliance and powerful tone, and listeners with a penchant for lesser known works will still enjoy these recordings. But make no mistake: there's a reason these pieces aren't heard in recital halls very often.
The second half of Warner's is devoted to the much more rewarding Piatigorsky Variations on a Paganini Theme. The theme, of course, is the same used by Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and countless others over the decades, yet Piatigorsky is nevertheless able to produce an abundance of new and stunning variation. Each of the 15 variations is a sort of mini-tribute to some of the greatest performers of the last century from Casals, Hindemith, and Szigeti to Heifetz, Milstein, and Kreisler. It's rather remarkable how accurately Piatigorsky was able to capture the temperament and personalities of some of his contemporaries in such short vignettes. The technical demands of this piece are staggering, yet Warner doesn't skip a beat. This album is absolutely worthwhile for the Piatigorsky alone.