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Wendy Warner Plays Popper & Piatigorsky
David Popper: Suite for Cello and Piano, Op. 69; Three Pieces, Op. 11; ImWalde, Op. 50
Gregor Piatigorsky: Variations on a Paganini Theme
Wendy Warner, cello; Eileen Buck, piano
Review By Joe Milicia

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  Popper and Piatigorsky? Not exactly the sort of Debussy/Ravel or Prokofiev/Shostakovich match one expects to find on recordings. The connection is that both men were cello virtuosi who composed music for their instruments. David Popper (1843-1913), protégé of Liszt and for some years the lead cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic, wrote a good deal of music, including four cello concertos, though he is best known today for short encore pieces. Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976), on the other hand, though celebrated as one of the truly great cello performers of the 20th Century, is virtually unknown as a composer. Still, he did write a set of variations on a Paganini theme — yes, the Paganini theme, the 24th Caprice for solo violin — for himself and orchestra, performed here in his arrangement for cello and piano. Wendy Warner, who has had a distinguished career since winning the International Rostropovich Competition in 1990 and making her New York debut that same year playing the First Shostakovich Concerto (Mstislav Rostropovich conducting), is the more than capable interpreter of these rarities.

Piatigorsky, like Elgar writing his Enigma Variations, composed each variation for a friend — except that Piatigorsky's friends were all famous performers, which affords the listener extra entertainment in trying to match the music with the musician. Thus, Variation 1 (Moderato espressivo), for Pablo Casals, is strikingly soulful, while Variation 2 (Energico), for Paul Hindemith, a violist as well as composer, is brisk, though not noticeably Hindemithian. The variation for Erica Morini is full of the pyrotechnic display that one associates more with violinists than cellists; that for Joseph Szigeti is brooding, while the one for Yehudi Menuhin features Bachian arpeggios. Fritz Kreisler is given a gypsy-flavored slow variation, while the Con Passione one for Mischa Elman is indeed passionate, and Variation 10, for the composer himself, offers a rapid, unending flow of triplets. The final variation, for Vladimir Horowitz, is in a march tempo that slowly but steadily becomes louder and faster.

Wendy Warner is alternately soulful and dazzling — it is a brilliant reading, with vigorous and sensitive accompaniment by Eileen Buck. It would be unfair to compare this 16-minute work with the great achievements of Brahms and Rachmaninoff (just for starters) in their own variations on the theme, but Piatigorsky's display piece is consistently a pleasure to hear. If only someone would record the original version with orchestra, or if Piatigorsky had made a commercial recording!  There is a Pearl release of a "private acetate fr. European broadcast of c. 1948" with Piatigorsky and an unnamed orchestra led by D[onald] Voorhees. The sound is pretty poor, and two variations are left out, but Piatigorsky is absolutely thrilling (the word "mercurial" is rarely applied to cellists, but it fits this artist's temperament), and the orchestration adds excitement, while the "Horowitz" march has a couple of theatrical ritardandi for a showier finish. (The performance can be heard on The Recorded Cello, Volume 1, a 3-CD set, Pearl GEMM CDS 9981-3.)

The Variations alone may be a reason for acquiring Warner's CD, but she also offers us a generous amount of music by Popper to precede the Piatigorsky. The set opens with a nearly half-hour Suite for Cello and Piano in four movements. Its surging, tuneful first movement, marked Allegro giojoso, is a good harbinger of music to follow. (In all deference to the excellent Andrea Lamoreaux's notes, her definition of "giojoso" [joyous] as "joking" seems to be reading the word as "giocoso" [indeed joking], but one can agree that the movement is "really more rhapsodic than it is joking.") A gentle Tempo diMinuetto follows, contrasted by a moody Ballade (Adagio), seeming to tell some dark tale, with a passage that echoes or foreshadows the opening theme of Dvorak's Cello Concerto of about the same time. The Finale offers a variety of moods, most of them genial in a somewhat Schumannesque way.

A much earlier suite, the Op. 11 Three Pieces, recalls Robert Schumann even more, with its opening Widmung (Dedication), a simple and soulful song without words. The Humoresque that follows is appropriately quirky and playful, while the Mazurka that concludes the set manages to be both stately and swaying in its dance rhythm.

The final Popper suite is ImWalde (In the Woods), a 6-movement work originally written for cello and orchestra. I haven't heard the orchestral version (there's one on the Naxos label with Maria Kliegel and an orchestra conducted by Gerhard Markson), but the cello/piano performance at hand is richly enjoyable. The opening Entrance (I'll give only the English translations) portrays the stroller into the woods as noble and exhilarated, truly thrilled at one point. Soon he comes upon a Gnomes' Dance, naturally a grotesque piece, rumbling and somewhat wild. It's followed by Devotion, a rapt slow movement; Lamoreaux imagines "nostalgia, remembering a life experience far removed from his current forest surroundings," but could his devotion be to some forest grove, a temple of nature? It's a lovely movement in any case. Round Dance introduces us to local peasants waltzing in a galumphing though not quite ungraceful fashion, while Autumn Flower is another of Popper's gentle songs without words. The Return Home bounces along delightfully in a 6/8 rhythm; whether the stroller is eager to get home or just invigorated by his walk must be left to the listener's imagination.

In all these works Warner plays with great beauty of tone, vigor, and rhythmic sensitivity, matched perfectly by Buck's sharp-etched accompaniments. Cedille provides excellent sound and ideal balance between cello and piano. In short, lovers of cello music in a mostly lighter but far from trivial vein will want this recording.





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