Bridge Cello CHSA5346

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Oration (Concerto elegiaco) (1929-30)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980)
Cello Concerto ‘Earth, Sea, Air’ (2022)
Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1955-56 rev. 1975)
Laura van der Heijden (cello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth
rec. 2023 Grand Hall, City Halls, Glasgow, UK
Chandos CHSA5346 SACD [82]

Remarkably it is already a dozen years or so since cellist Laura van der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician of the Year aged just fifteen. At the time her concerto choice seemed quite unusual and challenging. That choice was of the Walton Cello Concerto which in 2024 appears on van der Heijden’s debut concerto disc. The 2012 performance can still be viewed (in the UK at least) here and it is exactly as memory served – remarkably fine and insightful. In the intervening years her discography has been as a collaborative member of several very impressive chamber group and cello/piano recitals but it is good to report that this first concerto disc has been worth the wait. Her Walton is every bit as compelling as one would expect but the real pleasure is in the couplings which make for a diverse, fascinating and generous [82:03] collection.

I still find it near impossible to believe that Frank Bridge’s Oration (Concerto elegiaco) languished all but forgotten for nearly half a century after its 1931 composition. A couple of BBC broadcasts in the 1930’s were followed by a forty year ‘silence’ until it was revived in the mid-1970’s and received its first commercial recording as late as 1979 by Julian Lloyd-Webber on Lyrita. Since then it has had a further seven recordings before this new one – all of which are genuinely very good – although I would suggest that for a work that is surely amongst the top half dozen concertante cello works of the 20th Century that is still an under-representation. On this new disc van der Heijden is accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth and recorded by Chandos in SACD sound. The producer is Chandos veteran Brian Pidgeon but if I have an observation it is that the sound profile for this disc is not as dynamic or involving as many other Chandos productions. The cello/orchestra balance is very good and the orchestra is presented naturally with good depth but some of the ‘edge’ and bite in the orchestral playing seems to have been smoothed away. Whether this is a characteristic of an empty Grand Hall at the City Halls Glasgow or not I do not know. This is not the first SACD recording of the work – that honour fell to Stephen Isserlis on BIS as part of a genuinely excellent collection titled “in the shadow of War”. Mervyn Cooke’s useful liner describes the work as having “rhetorical lamentation” which is an excellent description and certainly van der Heijden projects the sense of grief tinged with bitter outrage that lies at the heart of the work. Throughout the disc she is a supple and expressive soloist with a technique fully up to the considerable demands of all three composers. My favourite version of Oration is by Raphael Wallfisch on Nimbus which I reviewed here in 2010 and it is interesting to compare this new disc to the older Nimbus. Wallfisch is not as technically fluent or at ease as van der Heijden but in the arc of this work his gruffness and occasional sense of strain actually makes the transfiguring epilogue all the more touching when it arrives. Likewise for Nimbus the RLPO and conductor Richard Dickens seem emotionally more invested in the work than their Scottish colleagues. In part this may be due to the greater immediacy and presence of the Nimbus engineering which is as fine as any I have heard from the Philharmonic Hall Liverpool. Not that the playing of the BBC SSO is anything but predictably excellent. Another interesting comparable version is also on Chandos – as part of their Frank Bridge Orchestral Works series – with Alban Gerhardt soloist with Richard Hickox and the BBC NOW. Gerhardt is a compellingly impassioned player while Hickox is wholly convinced by the greatness of this score. After all he had made an earlier EMI recording with Isserlis and another concert version again with Isserlis and the BBC NOW that turned up on a BBC Music magazine cover disc.

Overall I would say van der Heijden is a technical match for any of her illustrious colleagues and this version of Oration is rewarding in the way that any good performance of a great piece will be. However, this would not be my single preferred version. Comparisons are not an issue for Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Concerto titled Earth, Sea, Air as it is receiving its premiere recording by the artists for whom it was written in 2022. The work plays for 21:14 in this performance and is in three movements played continuously. The liner quotes the composer as seeking to celebrate nature and to reflect; “three disparate aspects of the natural world; the flight of a swift, phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean and volcanoes”. Of course the chosen three phenomena neatly reflect traditional concerto form of opening allegro, central slow movement and dramatic finale. I suspect for most listeners that will be enough. van der Heijden plays with all the technical brilliance and expressive range that could be wished for and the concerto itself is a very attractive and effective showcase for both soloist and orchestra. Frances-Hoad’s handling of the orchestra is likewise effective and engaging with several passages of real impact and power. There must always be a question about coupling an unknown work alongside masterpieces of the genre but it has to be said that this concerto bears comparison with the established works very well indeed. I am sure part of the success is down to the familiarity with the score of all the performers with Wigglesworth and BBC SSO performing with assurance and sensitivity.

Van der Heijden’s playing of the Walton Concerto is as fine as I have heard. The combination of nimble agility and powerfully lyrical writing seems to be especially attuned to her – which of course is probably why she chose the work for the BBC Young Musician Final. Of course there have been many very fine recordings of the work – Chandos providing at least three alternatives from Ralph Kirshbaum – on a very early Chandos disc – Wallfisch again as part of the excellent Walton Edition and most recent Paul Watkins With Edward Gardner as part of the latter’s mini-Walton survey. If I preferred Wallfisch’s gruffness in the Bridge, here van der Heijden quicksilver brilliance trumps it. Certainly going further back into the archives – dedicatee Piatigorsky’s studio version with Munch in Boston or the live performance with Sargent and the BBC SO sound effortful in direct comparison. Even Fournier live with Walton conducting does not surpass van der Heijden. Again the accompaniment from the BBC SSO is genuinely excellent but I do still find the recording itself dilutes the impact of the orchestra. The central Allegro Appassionato is typical Walton – all stopped snarling horns and jagged accents which can be heard but without the brilliance that Chandos achieved for Gardner – Watkins is pretty spectacular in this work too it must be said aided by Chandos SACD engineering of greater presence and bite.

As a showcase for the excellence of Laura van der Heijden as all-round fine musician this is a wholly enjoyable disc. As a total listening experience the slightly recessed recording of the Bridge and Walton dilutes their cumulative impact which means that I would return to other versions before this disc despite the soloistic brilliance displayed here. That being the case it might well be for the convincing Cheryl Frances-Hoad concerto that listeners primarily seek out this disc.

Nick Barnard

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