Contemporary Solo Cello Masterworks From Two “Great Danes”

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

Per Nørgård composed his first solo cello sonata between the ages of 19 and 21. His seriousness, sensitivity, and strong personality were clearly present early on. The first movement’s brooding lyricism never turns on itself, while the microtonal gestures are expressively discreet and anything but gimmicky. The Allegro con brio finale is like a fragmented or interrupted gigue, where sudden double stops and pizzicato chords seemingly challenge the music’s dance-like profile.

Wilhelmina Smith’s lustrous sonority, wide dynamic range, and impeccable control in the highest registers bring forth the music’s potential for color and drama. She conveys similar eloquence and sustaining power throughout No. 2, which consists of two pieces written nearly 27 years apart, and imparts an appropriately incantatory tone throughout the plaintive slides in the brief No. 3’s “Prayer” outer movements.

Poul Ruders’ Bravour-Studien is essentially a set of variations based on the Rennaissance era’s greatest hit “L’homme armé”. Ruders pushes the cellist’s capabilities in many directions, from hard-to-voice pizzicato flourishes and sul ponticello effects to leaping chords and low-lying runs that must murmur without sounding muddy.

Smith’s technical aplomb allows her to navigate Ruders’ hurdles without difficulty. That said, I prefer Morten Zeuthen’s more volatile and daring interpretation on Dacapo. His quavering vibrato in the opening Overture, for instance, immediately raises the emotional stakes, and the Etude boasts more abandon than in Smith’s relatively careful reading, which, however, boasts more reliable intonation. While she nonchalantly dispatches the Intermezzo’s arpeggiated chords, Zeuthen patiently spells them out, creating more of a contrast to the quiet pizzicato rejoinders. An unqualified recommendation for the Nørgård, but listeners interested in the Ruders should sample both Smith and Zeuthen.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: Works for Solo Cello
Reference Recording: Nørgård: This one, Ruders: Zeuthen (Dacapo)

  • NORGARD, PER:
    Sonata for Solo Cello No. 1; Sonata for Solo Cello No. 2 “In due tempi”; Sonata for Solo Cello No. 3 “What – is the Word!”
  • RUDERS, POUL:
    Bravour-Studien (Bravour Studies)
  • Wilhelmina Smith (cello)

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