It was a double dose of cellist Ralph Kirshbaum the Utah Symphony served up Friday evening in Symphony Hall, in not one but two major showpieces for the instrument, first the Schumann Cello Concerto, then Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote."
Actually, apart from their 19th-century German origins, the two are very different. Because for all the prominence accorded the cello, in the Strauss it speaks very much from within the orchestra, which bears the major narrative burden. In the Schumann, however, that task falls to the soloist, with the orchestra largely relegated to the role of accompanist.Which is pretty much how Kirshbaum and music director Joseph Silverstein played it Friday. Among the former's virtues are that he never overstates the case, with a tone that is never coarse or obstreperous. Yet at every point his solos came through, thanks not only to his own projection but to the conductor's refusal to overwhelm him.
Thus one was able to savor the beautifully ruminative opening, and the lyric continuity of what followed as Kirshbaum dug progressively deeper into the score. However, that expressivity was always controlled, and nowhere more affectingly than in the slow movement, particularly his duet with principal cellist Ryan Selberg. For that matter, one might have thought there were two cellists at work in the finale, here lively but unhurried, especially the gorgeous harmonics of the cadenza.
If that augured well for "Don Quixote," for the most part Kirshbaum did not disappoint. His statement of the theme in these "Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Kightly Character" may have been a bit ill-focused, but as things proceeded his introspective view of the character began to tell, for example in the exchanges with Sancho Panza - here artfully limned by principal violist Christopher McKellar - and the poignancy and unbroken line of the fifth variation, depicting the Don's nocturnal vision of Dulcinea.
Where the picture did not always come to life as convincingly as it might have was in the orchestra. Witness the occasionally lumpy and bottom-heavy introduction and, in the second variation, bleating of the sheep, and a third variation whose ardent climax, for all its expansiveness, stubbornly refused to soar.
In the fourth variation, by contrast, things began to be more vividly characterized (e.g., the slides on the tuba and contrabassoon). But although the sound throughout was big enough, and colorful enough, the sense of fantasy that must accompany this music was often lacking. Except, as I have noted, in the solos and, happily, the death scene, where the quiet desolation of Kirshbaum's playing was tenderly underlined.
Earlier the orchestra began the evening with a 20th-century romantic essay, Samuel Barber's Overture to the "The School for Scandal," which was in fact his graduation piece at the Curtis Institute.
It still wears its years lightly, even in a performance as deliberately scaled as this. Which is to say Silverstein still takes it slowly, offering more warmth than brilliance per se. Just the same, the lyricism came through, as did the heart through which it beats.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Its age notwithstanding, the 1938 Feuermann/Toscanini "Don Quixote" (Hunt) is of more than just historical interest. Of more recent vintage I recommend Janigro/Reiner (RCA), Tortelier/Kempe (EMI), Fournier/Karajan and, despite its somewhat larger-than-life quality, the same conductor's EMI recording with Rostropovich.
By the same token Maisky's DG disc of the Schumann concerto is similarly hard to resist, followed, for me, by the comparatively straightforward Lodeon, on Erato.