Haydn Cello Concertos and Bloch Schelomo – REVIEW

The Haydn Cello Concertos and Bloch Schelomo with Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Bernstein on Olympia Records are reviewed by Thomas Dawkins

Haydn: Cello Concertos (Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Rostropovich, (1975) Bloch: Schelomo (Orchestre National de France/Bernstein/Rostropovich, 1976)

Up for consideration is a remaster of two recordings featuring one of the great cellists of the twentieth century: Mstislav Rostropovich. Neither the Haydn nor the Bloch is new to the catalog nor are they difficult to find in more mainstream releases from Warner (EMI).  I have had the recording of Schelomo for a few years as it was released in a box called “Leonard Bernstein: An American in Paris” where it was coupled with the Schumann Cello Concerto as on the original LP release.  However, the sound in this Olympia version is considerably clearer and richer than on their Warner counterparts, and downloads are not expensive (an English site that offers both mp3 and FLAC downloads is currently charging $10 for the former, and $12.50 for the latter, certainly a worthwhile investment).

While Franz Joseph Haydn is thought of first as a symphonist and then as the composer who helped to define the string quartet, he did write concerto works as well, and two authentic ‘cello concertos survive from different periods in Haydn’s life: the C Major is from the early 1760s while the D Major is from 1783.  In terms of the symphonies, this puts the first concerto around the same time as the earliest symphonies and the second just before the “Paris” symphonies. The first concerto was thought to be lost until 1961, nearly two centuries after its composition, while the second was published during Haydn’s lifetime, around 1803. 

Haydn Cello Concertos and Bloch: Schelomo

There are dozens of recordings in the catalog: Pierre Fournier, Jacqueline DuPré, Yo-Yo Ma, and multiple versions by Mstislav Rostropovich including the present version with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Rostropovich also conducted these recordings; The late, (great violinist) Iona Brown is credited on some releases but she was the “leader” of the orchestra, which is what the English call the “concertmaster” or first violinist.

This is Haydn in the grand style, with a medium-sized orchestra, and Rostropovich is his usual self: nigh on technically flawless if a little heavy at times.  If you like your Haydn light and fast, this isn’t the recording for you. Jacqueline DuPré brings out the light, youthful exuberance in Haydn (albeit with a quite bland cadenza) while Rostropovich is more avuncular and mature.  Still, it is very difficult to find fault in his approach.  In the upper registers, Rostropovich plays with such clarity and focus of tone that it almost sounds like he’s switched to a viola. 

However, the most interesting feature of the C Major concerto is not by Haydn but that the cadenzas were written for Rostropovich by no less than Benjamin Britten. They include a few techniques like harmonics that are more 20th century than Haydn but they are tonally and melodically idiomatic and quite splendid.  (A later composer or performer writing cadenzas for an earlier piece is anything but a new concept.  Beethoven wrote famous cadenzas for one of the Mozart piano concertos, Fritz Kreisler wrote the most famous cadenzas for the Beethoven violin concerto, and so on).


Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” (Hebrew for “Solomon”) is termed a “Hebraic Rhapsody” and is essentially a concerto in one extended movement.  I would term Bloch’s writing as “cinematic” except movies would not have sound for over a decade when he wrote this piece, which was published in 1916.  It is for a large orchestra with harps, celesta, percussion, and many auxiliary instruments like bass clarinet and English horn, which gives it an exceptionally full and colorful sound.

Rostropovich’s recording was done with Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestre National de France; Bernstein also recorded it with Misha Maisky and the Israel Philharmonic. As one might expect, Bernstein is only too eager to wring every bit of the drama out of the score and makes it very exciting indeed.  The French sound isn’t always what one expects from Bloch, who was in the process of settling in America at the time, but it doesn’t pose any problems except perhaps a rather buzzy contrabassoon duet with the soloist at the very end.

Like many other Russian cellists, Rostropovich tends to growl a little on the C string where English and French players manage to sing more; a ‘cellist explained this to me once as a fundamental difference in philosophy as to the angle at which the instrument is held and the speed at which the bow is moved versus the amount of pressure put on the bow.  There is no right or wrong way, but in a piece like this where the cello has some very exposed low writing, one might prefer one approach over another. 

I first listened to Pierre Fournier’s recording in college which has perhaps spoiled me for others since he manages to have a very open and vibrant sound all the way to the bottom.  As expected, Rostropovich displays no difficulty in playing the very taxing solo part and seems to be encouraged by Bernstein to be even more dramatic than usual.

The sound in “Schelomo” is unfortunately a bit dryer for my taste compared to the Haydn, and this is true on the Warner releases as well.  The Salle Wagram is not a large hall and a modern recording engineer might choose to add a little reverb but this was not done in the 1970s.  The sound of the Haydn is very clear with rich tonality, though, with minimal hiss and a very good dynamic range.  The soaring strings are captured as well as the growling bass instruments and timpani.

If you are a fan of Rostropovich, this is an inexpensive way of getting two very different ends of the spectrum on the same release in excellent sound. Certainly, both are very worthwhile and excellent and at bargain prices, there is no reason not to explore them.


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