Too Much Tchaikovsky

Style, With Sprinkles

Dear Friends,

Congratulations! Copper’s readers, writers, faithful Editor, and visionary Publisher have all played a part in getting us to Year Two of this worthy enterprise. For me, the best way to celebrate is to persist. So here’s one more column that connects the dots between music’s basic principles and specific cases.

And have we got a dandy specific case for you this time: an exciting, great-sounding new recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto from Johannes Moser and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande led by Andrew Manze (Pentatone PTC  5186 570; SACD and download). It’s coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

The Variations were Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic nod to Mozart; they mix Romantic and Classic styles. Scored for a relatively small orchestra, Rococo nevertheless produces warm, plush colors—definitely Romantic. Tchaikovsky’s theme is more straightforwardly “Rococo,” i.e., Early Classic: a series of measured, symmetrical phrases, simple but about as folksy as Marie Antoinette in her Little Shepherdess outfit. The variations also hew closely to Classicism, producing a string of pearls tinged with melancholy. Moser’s performance perfectly balances delicacy and display. It’s easy to see why he won Special Prize at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition for his interpretation.

In terms of style, there’s even more going on. Moser has chosen to perform the original version, not the radically revised edition created by cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who premiered it in Moscow in 1877. Besides adding virtuoso detailing, Fitzenhagen eliminated one variation and re-arranged the order of the rest, destroying the composer’s carefully worked-out musical progression. As Tchaikovsky’s publisher put it: “Good God! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!” The Fitzenhagen version is still used by many cellists; Liszt loved it. But Moser gives us what Tchaikovsky wrote, minus the un-special effects. My 21st-century ears like it that way.

The case of the Elgar Concerto is complicated too. Many fans measure all performances of this work against Jacqueline Du Pré’s gutsy, larger-than-life 1965 recording. Moser doesn’t so much displace her version as simply glide over it. Lithe, dynamic, transparent, wholly convincing as instrumental drama, this new recording breaks free of the generic expressivity and Edwardian gravitas that sink some other efforts. (By now, cellists everywhere should know that attempts to beat Du Pré at her own game can end badly.)

This was Elgar’s last major orchestral work. It echoes the grief and loss of the Great War, of a vanished Empire. But Elgar had no premonition of his wife’s death shortly to come, no consciousness that this 1919 Concerto would be his creative farewell. Closer to the mark was Sir Adrian Boult’s remark that in the Cello Concerto Elgar “struck a new kind of music, with a more economical line, terse in every way.” Moser’s performance hints at a Late Style that could have been.

He has found sympathetic collaborators in Andrew Manze and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Their carefully prepared, remarkably unified performance sounds spontaneous nonetheless. Movement timings provide a clue, especially when compared with those of Du Pré or more recently Stephen Isserlis (who does seem to “get it” regarding Elgar’s Late Style). In every case, Moser shaves significant time off Du Pré’s landmark reading and usually off Isserlis’s as well. But never does the Moser-Manze account feel hurried. If anything, this slightly more Italianate, extrovert approach heightens coherence while sharpening the music’s emotional impact. (Manze pulled off a similar hat trick with the Brahms symphonies a few years ago.) This is how music is kept alive: performers continually refurbish the castles and apartments of the Great Works so that today’s audiences can continue to respond to them.

(Speaking of “alive,” check out Pentatone’s detailed, exquisitely balanced high-resolution recording. In no way does it weaken the sound of Elgar’s rich orchestral palette. Instead, a multitude of nuances emerge while big moments are enhanced. Kudos to producers Job Maarse and Erdo Groot and their superb team.)

At first I figured Manze’s career as an Early Music specialist had encouraged his embrace of swifter, leaner interpretations. As a violinist and director he brought out landmark recordings of Vivaldi, Biber, Pandolfi, and Telemann. By the time he turned to conducting “standard” repertoire, his fondness for clarity, spontaneity, and energy had become a habit. To re-imagine Bach or Vivaldi had been customary, necessary even. To re-imagine Brahms or Elgar proved revolutionary.

Last week I caught up with Johannes Moser and got the rest of the story. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

LS: You and Manze seem to be on precisely the same wavelength with the Elgar Concerto. How did you work that out?

JM: I have been playing this concerto for almost two decades, and during that time I tried many different approaches. After getting fed up with a purely emotional approach—which certainly has its merits—I started meticulously dissecting the score and its many markings. Very few pieces contain such a wealth of information. Furthermore, the largely unknown recording by Beatrice Harrison served as a source of great inspiration, because the conductor was none other than Edward Elgar himself! [To read about the astonishing recent discovery of “accidental stereo” recordings of Harrison’s 1920 performance, with timings much closer to Moser than to Du Pré, click here. —LS]

When I started rehearsing with Andrew, he had done the Elgar only a few times and with cellists who favored a very traditional approach. It was easy to convince him of my findings, just because he also takes the score extremely seriously. We quickly agreed on an interpretation. To me, the freshest interpretations are those that go back to the very roots—the score! As Brahms once said, “One must read as much music as one plays.”

LS: Tell me about your relationship to the Fitzenhagen Rococo Variations.

JM: I first got to know the original version at the 2002 Tchaikovsky competition. For years I went back and forth between the two versions, finally settling on the original. The available orchestra material is rather faulty, so I travel with my own, corrected parts. I send orchestras the PDFs a couple of months in advance.

I have nothing against the Fitzenhagen version, I just love the original so much more. There is a fast variation in the middle and another at the very end, which makes the dramatic curve more interesting. We do know that Tchaikovsky approved only a few of the changes and actually hated the result. However, because at the time he was so unsuccessful with his violin and piano concertos—really, it’s true!—he did not want to interfere with Fitzenhagen’s efforts. To this day, the original is still largely unknown. My mission is to change that!

LS: I see from your schedule that you remain deeply involved in chamber music.

JM: I can honestly say that I learn the most from it. And I love that there is always more to discover! My musical roots lie in the German tradition, from Mendelssohn through Schumann and Brahms to Schoenberg. Last week I played [Schoenberg’s] Verklärte Nacht again, and it is all in there: Wagner to Mahler to Zemlinsky, and furthermore scratching at the very outer edges of tonality. This year I am doing many recitals featuring the Brahms E Minor Sonata [see below], which I have played for decades, and the Franck Sonata, which is actually new for me.

LS: Safe travels, and best wishes on your further adventures.

JM: Thank you.

See Johannes Moser’s complete tour schedule here. He’s also big on YouTube, but for convenience’s sake most of his videos can be seen here.