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Wendy Warner, Cello
Cedille Records

Carl Popper (1843-1913) was a notable figure in the Romantic tradition of the virtuoso-composer, and Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) took up his mantle in the 20th century. The instrument receiving such privileged attention was the cello, which never had its resources explored more expertly than in Popper’s Suite for Cello and Piano, Op. 69, Three Pieces, Op. 11, and Im Walde, Op. 50. As if the Popper selections did not constitute abundant enough riches, we are given Piatigorsky’s Variations on a Paganini Theme (1946) for a thrilling chaser.

I can’t speak more glowingly of the performances by American cellist Wendy Warner. Popper’s richly chromatic writing in the Liszt/Wagner tradition calls for superlative technique to put it across, and Warner is up to its difficulties, which include fast cadenza-like runs, alternation of pizzicato and bowing, sudden shifts between forte and piano phrasing, and occasional cello harmonics (high, ethereal sounds produced by pressing the strings lightly instead of holding them down all the way, creating an echo effect). Warner’s partner in this recital, pianist Eileen Buck, is superb. As she must be, for Popper’s writing requires the piano to function as obbligato rather than mere accompaniment, allowing the cello to undertake even higher levels of bracing virtuosity.

Popper’s Suite, Op. 69 is comprised of an opening Allegro giojoso, as lively as the marking suggests; a Tempo di Minuetto with a soft Trio, a far-ranging Ballade in which diminished intervals and falling half-tones conspire to produce a sense of emotional insecurity, and a cheerful, audacious Finale in which a cadenza passage and a striking fortissimo in the cello part are heard over staccato chords and complex runs in the piano. Popper’s Three Pieces, all of encore complexity and brilliance, are a lyrical, heartfelt Widmung (Dedication) that grows more agitated as it progresses until it reaches a peaceful ending colored by sadness, a playful Humoreske in which accented staccato figures in the cello are supported by octave passages in the piano, and a brilliant Mazurka featuring staccato dotted and triplet figures for both players.

As we might have guessed from the titles, Popper liked to pay tribute to his contemporaries. The memory of Schumann, in particular is evoked by the title and formal design of Im Walde (In the Forest), recalling the older composer’s Waldszenen in the layout of its six movements: Eintritt (Entrance), Gnomentanz (Dance of the Gnomes), Andacht (Devotion), Reigen (Round Dance), Herbstblume (Autumn Flower, featuring one of the most beautiful melodies ever written for cello), and Heimkehr (Homeward). As in so much of his writing, Popper strikes a happy balance between technique and melody (witness the way fast lower-register piano figurations for both partners create a feeling of the menace posed by his dancing gnomes: you never know how the unpredictable creatures are going to act!)

Gregor Piatigorsky, a pre-eminent cellist of more recent times whose classic performances are still available to the home listener, made a memorable set of 15 variations on the famous Paganini etude that has inspired so many composers. Not only did this work stimulate Piatigorsky’s imagination, but he also designated individual variations as tributes to his colleagues. They included such notables as Pablo Casals, Erica Morini, Paul Hindemith (who was a world-class violist as well as composer), Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, and Gaspar Cassado. He paid them further homage by incorporating something of the characteristic style of each, inviting the listener to put the booklet aside and cudgel his brains with a zestful game of “Name That Virtuoso.” The work concludes with tributes to Piatigorsky’s recital partners, Jascha Heifetz (staccato figures for both players, stunning trills and chromatic scales for the cello) and Vladimir Horowitz (a march-time crescendo, with brilliant cello runs and big keyboard chords).

Complimenting superlative performances by Wendy Warner and Eileen Buck are the clear, warm, and beautifully detailed sonics of the recordings, so natural you can feel the presence of the performers in your living room or den. Credit producer Judith Sherman, engineer Bill Maylone, and session director James Ginsburg for a first-rate job, recorded, as so many others have been, at the studio of WFMT Chicago.

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