One of the fairly recent big phenomena in marketing classical music recordings can be described in two words: chill out. Classical music has long been praised for its ability to reduce stress, and in the last five years or so, one record company after another has jumped onboard with compilations of adagios and the like, whose purpose, it would seem, is to soothe anxious and wound-up listeners at the end of a difficult day. Now, I've always disliked the idea of classical music presented as high-class Valium. Listening should not be a passive experience, nor is it accurate to stereotype classical music in this manner. Furthermore, I believe that it is not just what the music can do for us that matters… it is also asking ourselves what we can do for the music.
Nevertheless, I must admit that I like two hours of sleepy-time music as much as the next person and it's nice to have someone else compile it for you. Therefore, I was receptive to the idea of this two-CD set, not least because the cello is one of my favorite instruments. The 24 selections included here, while mostly slow and quiet, have been cleverly ordered to avoid monotony. The cello alone, with a piano, with an orchestra, and even with a soprano (Villa-Lôbos' Bachianas Brasileiras #5, with Juliane Banse) all take their turn. Furthermore, a wide range of moods apparently falls under the description "relaxing," from Bach's Cello Suites (the preludes to the First and Second Suites, where order and reason are paramount), the melancholy regret of Fauré's Après une rêve, and the blissful oblivion of Brahms' Wiegenlied.
Also, with four talented cellists on hand, it is possible (and fun) to compare playing styles. The "old guard" is represented by Rostropovich and the late du Pré, while Chang and Mørk are the youngsters. In terms of personality and memorability, the old guard wins easily, but, especially in a "relaxing" compilation of this sort, one should not discount Chang and Mørk for placing high value on tone, and for letting interpretive matters sort themselves out with less intervention.
Don't expect to learn anything, though. The booklet lists the track titles, timings, and performers, and not much else… certainly no essays about the individual works or the cello itself. This compilation is meant for dreamers, not for thinkers!
The recordings cover a range of more than three decades, yet the sound is consistent and almost uniformly excellent. The reissue producer (unnamed, but it seems that he or she is Finnish, as this is a production of EMI Finland) did a good job of matching disparate recordings to each other.
In short, this is not the sort of CD an experienced classical collector would tend to consider, but trust me: it's nice to be pampered every now and then. It might not be the most relaxing cello album in the world… ever (!), but it is relaxing enough for me!
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle