Ofra Harnoy plays Offenbach and Lalo
Offenbach was a cellist himself and in 1850 wrote an entirely winning concerto which Ofra Harnoy has already recorded on RCA (11/86). AML described the work as “unremittingly tuneful” and I later waxed enthusiastically about the CD.
The Concerto militaire is not short of tunes either. It opens with a very Offenbachian tutti – robbed a little of its sparkle here by rather too resonant a recording – which introduces the characterful dotted march theme that affords the work its sobriquet (the composer’s own); but the soaring secondary theme is even more striking. The concerto dates from 1847 and the conductor of the present recording, Antonio di Almeida, who is also an authority on Offenbach, tells us in the notes that no complete autograph score exists although there is a set of the original orchestral parts. This is perhaps – although not certainly – held at the Offenbach Archive in Cologne. The published score used here is revised and reconstructed by the French cellist, Jean-Max Clement, who orchestrated the last two movements, using the piano score and keeping to the style and scale of the opening movement. He also had a considerable hand in revising, even devising, the often complex solo part which appears never to have been written out in full by its composer (especially in the finale, where the cadenza is by Clement alone). Some of the bravura solo writing in the extreme upper tessitura of the first movement approaches the ridiculous in appearing to throw all caution to the winds, but perhaps that was the composer’s own joke. What is fascinating is that Offenbach himself revised the second movement Andante, richly expanding its scoring to make a separate concertante piece. It has a glorious main theme and in Harnoy’s ravishing performance it is the highlight of this CD. In the concerto she is more than equal to the bristling difficulties of the solo part yet swoons like a very stylish operetta heroine in the ardent lyrical lines, characteristically and subtly using the widest range of dynamics to add to the sense of poetic spontaneity. The genial finale, with its jaunty main theme, comes off splendidly.
Almeida accompanies the Offenbach sympathetically and persuasively and cello and orchestra are naturally balanced: I only wish that the otherwise flattering acoustic of the Wessex Hall in the Poole Arts Centre had not also provided such a high degree of resonance. It suits the Lalo Concerto much better and the melodramatic opening tutti, laminated with heavy brass, is as portentous as you like. Again a very good recording balance both ensures that the soloist’s disarmingly gentle recitativo projects naturally, and readily tames the vehement orchestral protests. Almeida opens the engaging “Intermezzo” with a nice touch of melancholy, delicately setting the scene for the doleful cello entry, while the central scherzando episode brings some deliciously light flute decoration for the soloist’s gentle whimsy. The finely graduated and eloquently phrased solo introduction for the finale again shows
Harnoy at her most imaginative, and there is a buoyant eruption of energy to follow. Harnoy handsomely appears in military costume on the front of the CD and when you take the disc out of its case, there she is again!'