Sunday, 21 February 2016

Danish First Performances (Delius, Britten and Lutoslawski) : Erling Blöndal Bengtsson

The Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson was born in Copenhagen in 1932 and had a long and fruitful career. Aged sixteen, he travelled to the United States to study cello under Gregor Piatigorsky at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Bengtsson combined extensive concertizing and recording with a number of academic appointments. This included teaching at the Royal Danish Academy, the Swedish Radio Music School and a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik Köln and the University of Michigan, School of Music. Latterly Bengtsson presented masterclasses in Norway and Iceland. He died in June 2013. The breadth of his repertoire is considerable, ranging from Haydn to Henze and from Weber to Walton. Most of his recordings have been released by Danacord, with the catalogue currently listing more than 20 CDs. There is superb website dedicated to his life and achievement.

Britten’s Symphony for cello and orchestra, op.68 was composed for Rostropovich. It was completed in 1963 and first performed in the following year by the dedicatee in Moscow with Britten conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  It was the composer’s first major ‘sonata form’ orchestral work since the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940). Michael Kennedy has pointed out that this work is not concerto, as it does not rely on ‘bravura display’ nor depend ‘on a struggle between soloist and orchestra’. Nor, he insists is it a Symphony with cello obligato, such as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (viola). In fact, the secret of this piece is that it composed for two equal partners, neither one dominating.  
The opening movement is ferocious and tormented in its exposition. The following ‘scherzo’ is sinister in its effect. The third movement is an ‘adagio’ that features the timpani as an important partner to the cellist, as well as a complex cadenza leading to the finale. This last movement opens with an ‘ear-catching trumpet tune, before the work closes on a positive note. It is a hugely virtuosic piece that demands all the skill and technique the cellist can muster: I believe that Bengtsson performance perfectly satisfies these demands.

The two Suites for solo cello recorded here are equally virtuosic, however they are, by definition, more intimate. The Suite No.2 was composed in 1967; the Suite No.3 in 1971: both were dedicated to Rostropovich. The two suites are quite different in their ethos. No.2 is classically ‘absolute’ and has five contrasting movements, whilst No.3 is infused with Russian folk-songs in its nine movements. This latter Suite has troubling and often passionate music that seems to be devoid of humour but has considerable emotional angst. All three Suites were inspired by Rostropovich’s performances of the Bach Cello Suites. I wonder if Bengtsson recorded the Suite No.1, op.72 (1964). If he had, I guess it could have been squeezed on here.

The Cello Concerto by Frederick Delius is a neglected work. There are fewer recordings in the CD catalogues than any of the other pieces on this disc. The concerto was composed in 1921 and was first performed on 31 January 1923 in Vienna by the Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky. The liner notes repeat Philip Heseltine’s myth that it was Beatrice Harrison who gave the premiere. [Harrison would give the British premiere on 3 July 1923 in London]
Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out that Delius believed it to be his favourite concerto, on account of its ‘melodic invention.’ The present recording exploits this melodic felicity to produce a haunting and memorable performance. Adjectives can be piled up to describe this work: pastoral, nostalgic, rhapsodic and rapturous. Some critics have been a wee bit negative and submitted that ‘rambling’ is a good description. Lloyd Webber has said that it is a hard piece ‘to bring off’: I was more than satisfied with Bengtsson’s ‘spacious’ and thoughtful interpretation.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for cello and orchestra was completed in 1970. It had been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for performance by Rostropovich. The premiere was at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 14 October 1970 with the dedicatee and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes.  This work has had a degree of interpretive controversy with critics imputing various ‘programmes’ that the composer did not have in mind, or at least cautioned against.
The liner notes state that Bengtsson has studiously given ‘a performance that is as much to do with what is written as with anything theatrical.’ Over and against this Lutoslawski did indulge in vivid ‘characterisation’ across this piece, with whimsical, abrasive and strident moods appearing in the solo part and the orchestra. I believe that this work represents more the turmoil of the soul or mind rather than ‘the oppression of the individual cramped in a cell, sadistic gaolers on patrol.’  Whatever the interpretation (or none) this is a difficult, musically complex and technically challenging concerto.  William Mann, reviewing this work in the The Times (15 October 1970) suggested that the concerto ‘balances self-control with flights of fantasy’. He writes that the soloist and the orchestra ‘discuss and argue, and sometimes idyllically dream…’ It is a good description of the score and Bengtsson’s realisation of it.

These not-so-early historic recordings have been well re-mastered and sounds fantastic. Naturally, one or two extraneous noises remain as these are live performances. I found the playing both impressive and enjoyable.  Highlights for me are Britten Symphony and the Lutoslawski Concerto, both of which I have renewed acquaintance with here after many years of neglect. 

The booklet is excellent, with a brief biography of Bengtsson and detailed notes about the five works recorded: they are written by Colin Anderson. There is a comprehensive discography of CDs currently available from Danacord featuring Bengtsson’s playing.  The present CD is Merte Blöndal Bengtsson’s personal tribute to her late husband. 

All these works have received a number of recordings over the years from a wide variety of soloists and orchestras. This two-CD set features the first performances of all these works in Denmark. They make an enjoyable and satisfying programme. The advertising ‘blurb’ for this latest release is correct in suggesting that these diverse works ‘offers testimony of Bengtsson’s inquisitiveness and versatility.’  Add to this a warmth and vibrancy of tone and consistently gorgeous playing and the listener has a must-buy CD. 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Concerto for cello and orchestra (1921)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) Symphony for cello and orchestra, op.68 (1963)
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-94) Concerto for cello and orchestra (1969-70)
Benjamin BRITTEN Solo Cello Suite no.2, op.80 (1967) [19:14]; Solo Cello Suite no.3, op.87 (1971)
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello) Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Meredith Davies (Delius); Copenhagen Philharmonic/Okko Kamu (Britten), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt (Lutoslawski)

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