WILLIAMS:  Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.  Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.  Three Pieces for Solo Cello.  Heartwood.
Yo-yo Ma, cellist; Recording Arts Orch. of Los Angeles/John Williams, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL SK 89670 (F) (DDD) TT:  66:46

I first heard of John Williams as jazz arranger Johnny Williams for the likes of Mel TormÈ. Later, he substantially reworked the music for the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, a Broadway show I sneer at. Williams, however, managed to turn the bland into the brilliant by revealing hitherto unsuspected musical links to Prokofiev. I've been interested in his activities ever since. We all know his spectacular movie career, which he's been beaten up for. I grant that some of his film scores are worse than others, but to my mind he has at least a dozen classics, including Dracula, 1941, A. I., The Fury, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Family Plot, The Long Goodbye, and The Reivers. The movies may not have all rung the bell, but at least they had marvelous music.

His career outside of films has been a bit schizophrenic, careening from cotton-candy to thistles and thorns. He obviously made all the money he needs a long time ago, and I think it does him credit that he continues to compose for concert venues. I don't grudge him the money. At this point, he's a composer split. He wants to communicate with a wide audience, but he also wants to stretch himself. The first tendency sometimes results in blush-making junk (e.g., "Summon the Heroes" for the L. A. Olympics), the second in crabb'd and cramp'd music that assembles various technical gadgets which add up to nothing other than their presentation (e.g., the trumpet concerto). Nevertheless, when these two traits come together, the results are at least interesting.

I don't hesitate to call the cello concerto one of the best for the instrument. It may even become a classic on the order of the Dvorak or the Elgar. Who knows? Williams shows a mastery in his writing, not merely in his orchestration, which you'd expect to be wonderful or at least effective. He lays it out in four movements, played without pause. Each movement exhibits unusual structural features. The opening, "Theme and Cadenza," combines a muscular allegro with a thoughtful cadenza, each part taking roughly half of the section's nine minutes. The cadenza itself shows Williams's willingness to take risks -- a solo cello holding the musical interest for a longer-than-normal time. The second movement, "Blues," conjures up a smoke-filled club near closing, without resorting to jazz evocations at all. Williams suggests Ellington and Strayhorn, which comes through in the reed voicings, but the movement consists mainly of isolated chords held together by the cello line. It serves as a transition to a driving, sinister scherzo, the showpiece movement of the concerto, both for the orchestra and for the soloist. Williams ends, courageously, with a slow movement, "Song." His idea was to create long lyrical lines for the cello, and he does this without conventional song. I'd call the movement a recitative rather than an aria, but it's the deepest part of the concerto. Its eleven minutes (the longest stretch of the work) never bog down, for some reason probably not readily apparent to "eye-analysis." It deals in shapes and intervals, rather than in themes. Williams wrote it with Ma in mind and cites in particular Ma's "ability to connect personally and even privately" to each member of the audience. Ma does not disappoint. This is both a passionate and a coherent reading of a complicated work.

The Elegy works on a less ambitious scale. In idiom, it reminds me of the late-Romantic idiom Williams developed for the Dracula score. Nevertheless, it sings beautifully and avoids the easy and the obvious. To me, the music sounds genuinely heartfelt. Again, Ma plays soulfully and sans schmaltz.

American slavery inspired the Three Pieces for solo cello. For me, it's a mixed bag. The first movement starts off with an evocation of a work-gang song, punctuated by either the slaver's whip or the fall of a twelve-pound hammer. It begins and ends well but wanders aimlessly in the middle. The second movement, "Pickin'," stands as the most coherent. Williams means to depict a banjo or guitar; perversely, I hear a fiddle. Indeed, I hear mainly not Black or Delta music, but Appalachian music in all three pieces. I don't mark Williams down for this. Indeed, I give him credit for coming up with something that refers so widely. The finale, "The Long Road Home," inspired by a Rita Dove poem, starts beautifully as a lullaby or even as a lament. It falters a bit here and there. That is, occasionally it goes on for no good reason other than to mark time, but this may arise from momentary lapses in the performance. For the most part, it conveys a feeling of nobility and quietude.

Heartwood has a "spiritual" program—it was inspired by an art book of photographs of live oaks—which I simply don't connect with. Any interest the piece has for me is purely musical. It's fifteen minutes of slow, a substantial risk. Something inspired by in essence a coffee-table book might lead you to expect coffee-table music—exquisitely made and dead from terminal good taste. Williams, despite a long, ruminative introduction (a dreamier version of the opening to Honegger's second symphony) and the pictorial inspiration, nevertheless understands that the music has to go somewhere and move with a purpose. The piece seems to be written in a grand arc, with the climax splendidly waxing and waning over a long span.

Ma's at his best in the concerto and in the Elegy. The performances of the other pieces seem less focused. Williams does his usual thoroughly professional, though not particularly inspired job conducting. I'd like to hear someone like Thomas take the concerto on. The recording is a bit too spectacular for my taste. I've never heard a live orchestra, not even the Berlin Philharmonic, sound this good.

S.G.S.(July 2002)
(Editor Note: This recording is also available in MULTI-CHANNEL)