This is a somewhat more significant issue than it might at first appear; on playing this disc several times over a period of weeks I have found the soloist’s interpretations of these by no means intellectually challenging works to have a greater degree of subtlety than was initially apparent.
The three Cello Concertos come from different periods, ranging from Saint-Saëns’s familiar First of 1872 and Lalo’s of four years later – the first years of La Belle Époque – to Milhaud’s First of 1934 – the Great War and the Jazz Age having led to the latter period – but they are each wholly characteristic and share those clever Gallic styles which define the nationality of the composers.
These works do not demand much intellectual insight on the part of the soloist, and therefore appeal greatly to gifted young instrumentalists, of whom the Korean Hee-Young Lim is certainly one; she gives very good performances, in some ways much more than that, of all the music here, which appears to have been cleverly planned to showcase her undoubted gifts.
The Saint-Saëns is justifiably popular, with its adroit charm and some depth of feeling here and there. Lim’s account is most successful, especially in the delightful, delicately-wistful central movement. In the flashier outer ones her technical command is admirable, and she does not fall into the rather commonplace trap of skating too casually over the Concerto’s running thematicism, as do many virtuosos. Lalo’s Concerto may be a more pretentious and perhaps less meaningful composition, although it has many pages of genuinely imaginative and rich romanticism – such as one often hears from this quite unfairly overlooked composer – and in this work, also, Lim’s temperament and insight are wholly what the music demands. She is extremely well-partnered here.
Darius Milhaud’s First Cello Concerto was begun half-an-hour after he had finished his delightful Concertino de Printemps (for violin and orchestra); as he told me: “I had some manuscript paper left over, and almost at once began the Cello Concerto; when the muse is upon you, you must put it down on paper and not run the risk of losing the immediacy of inspiration.”
Well, we later listeners (and cellists) are grateful he obeyed his muse, for this Concerto is a wonderfully appealing work which has received many recordings, beginning with what may still be regarded as the finest – Janos Starker with the Philharmonia and Walter Susskind – recorded in July 1956 in the very same Abbey Road Studio One as Lim’s account.
Milhaud’s marking of the first movement, Nonchalant ideally identifies the character of the music – which the Korean does not always reveal (even Rostropovich, in his second recording, did not get it right; Starker is ideal), but in the slow movement, Grave, she is spellbinding, the lightness of the first movement here taken over by deeper reflection; her playing of the final bars is very moving. The romp-like Finale (Joyeux) goes well, with the LSO on good form throughout, and the two ‘encores’ are so well-played they ought to not be regarded as fillers. Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline is a real find, and Lim’s playing of the ‘Méditation’ is so exquisitely beautiful that one is almost convinced the music is more suited to the cello than the violin.
It’s odd that the Second Cello Concertos of both Saint-Saëns and Milhaud are bigger in scope and more serious in expression than their first such works. Each is unfairly neglected; perhaps Hee-Young Lim can add them to her discography.