Vieuxtemps’ career as one of the greatest soloists of his age ended in 1873 when he was struck down by the first of a number of strokes. Thereafter he turned increasingly to composition but not solely for his own instrument, the violin. In early 1876 he completed work on his first Cello Concerto. It’s couched in the vernacular of later nineteenth-century writing, with a brief orchestral introduction presaging a veritable gabble of non-stop technical demands. Fortunately Vieuxtemps was too good a melodist to omit a grandly sweeping tune and to offer some contrasting material, variously insistent, powerful and relaxed. The heart of the work is in the slow movement, cut from his finest cloth, with its lovely lyric tune and deft orchestration. It makes one wonder how it was played when Joseph Servais essayed it privately or when Joseph Hollman—who lived long enough to record—played it in front of William III in Amsterdam. As it is Alban Gerhardt, a major player in Hyperion’s 'Romantic Cello' series, plays with ardent expressive tone, and he brings dextrous virtuosity to the finale, whose passagework requires plenty of bravado from the soloist.
The opening orchestral exposition of the Second Concerto, a work composed with Servais in mind, is particularly fine. Vieuxtemps is more democratically-inclined here, trusting the orchestra with a greater share of dramatic and colouristic responsibility and the opening measures positively sweep along in stirring fashion. There is plenty of incident here and an ingenious accompanied cadenza. The slow movement opens with a decided baroque tinge, unleashing a meditative cello response, and an air of the funereal about both solo and accompanying forces, especially the brass. This tread generates a brief, quiet intensity. A self-requiem encoded, perhaps because whilst the finale casts care to one side and salutes the future with brio, Vieuxtemps himself did not live to hear the concerto performed, dying in June 1881.
As the cortège laid Vieuxtemps to rest—he was only 61—the next reigning lion of the Belgian school carried the older man’s violin. The violin-bearer was leonine Eugène Ysaÿe, who is represented by two works, both composed around 1910 but not published until 1921. The Méditation is much the longer and particularly fascinating, as Ysaÿe’s compositions usually are, for its harmonic suggestiveness. It’s a rhapsodic tone poem, in effect, of some Wagnerian subtlety allowing the cello to weave through the orchestral writing with care. Ruminative though it is, it casts something of a hallowed spell, and this performance does it real justice. The Sérénade is, as the name suggests, a lighter, more elegant and less diffuse piece. Both these were on a Musique en Wallonie CD, a disc I’ve yet to hear.
As for Vieuxtemps there’s a competing disc on Cyprès CYP 4609, released back in 2001 with cellist Marie Hallynck to the fore though again, frustratingly for the purposes of comparison, I’ve not had that either. Nevertheless I can hear no failings in Gerhardt’s performance and he is splendidly partnered by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and their excellent conductor Josep Caballé Domenech in the pleasing acoustic of deSingel, Antwerp. Fine notes too by Nigel Simeone make this a decidedly attractive proposition.