The New York Album
In presenting music associated, in some way or other, with a particular city, Yo-Yo Ma's ''The New York Album'' additionally investigates three very different creative attitudes to the strategic relationship between soloist and orchestra. The Stephen Albert Concerto is a gritty, Barber-style tussle, with its various participants scored on more or less equal terms; whereas Bartok's transparent dialogue (as played here on an alto violin) has soloist and orchestra coexist rather than interrelate, and Bloch's sumptuous evocation of King Solomon alternates candid incantation with huge, tonally complex orchestral tuttis.
Albert, who was born in New York in 1941 and died 51 years later in a car accident, composed a number of orchestral works, including two symphonies—the second of which lay unfinished at the time of his death. As it happens, this four-movement Cello Concerto (1990) is also conceived on a symphonic scale. Fairly cosmopolitan in overall style (audible influences include Sibelius and Bernstein), it opens with an intense, rhapsodizing solo, before a blast of brass and a flurry of strings make way for a Mahlerian rising figure on the woodwind and a good deal of agitated argument. Ideas throughout are darkly colourful but conventional, although Albert's score incorporates imaginative use of brass, harp (especially in its lower registers), piano and heavy percussion. There's a scurrying scherzo, a pensive Larghetto (which opens with a Britten-style brass clarion call) and a ten-minute finale that occasionally suggests Bartok or the Stravinsky of the Symphony in Three Movements. Although initial encounters hardly suggest a revelatory masterpiece, the combination of Albert's inventive music, Ma's intense delivery and Zinman's alert conducting make for a pretty riveting experience.
As to the Bartok Concerto, Ma's decision to use a vertical viola, or alto violin (''a large viola fitted with a long endpin and held like a cello'') stems from his apparent dissatisfaction with ''the registral displacement'': of the authorized cello version (recorded by Janos Starker on RCA, 3/92). Using the alto violin also meant honouring the work's original pitch, although comparison with Wolfgang Christ's superb DG recording (4/94) inclines me towards the earlier performance, which is both richer in tone and more urgently communicated. I was also somewhat taken aback when, at the beginning of the concerto, the prescribed cellos and double bass were replaced by timpani. The reason for this is that Ma and Zinman appear to have been working from a revision (due for publication during the course of this year) that incorporates certain re-interpretations of Bartok's original sketches and that does indeed substitute timpani for the low strings. It's a good performance, strongly accompanied and it 'fits' well—in programming terms, that is—between Albert and Bloch.
Schelomo himself wails or prays to theatrical effect, although I did sometimes wonder at Ma's scooping portamentos, some of which sound coyly affected rather than particularly expressive. Zinman, though, is quite magnificent, while his Baltimore players—who are superbly recorded—rise to survey Bloch's towering climaxes with a combination of bravura and finesse.
Sony's presentation is self-consciously trendy, with carefully posed photos of Ma clowning on a New York roof-top, a clumsy concertina booklet and reversed-out printing that is decidedly uncomfortable on the eye. Not exactly helpful (a particular shame, given the excellence of David Grayson's accompanying notes), but a harmless adornment to what is, in many respects, an attractive and satisfying programme.'