It must be nice to be considered a “legendary treasure.” I always dreamed that someday I would be a legendary treasure, but at my current rate the only way I’ll actually achieve such a status would be to:
- Work extended hours at my job
- Save enough money to have my body surgically encased in 24-karat gold
- Drown in the Atlantic Ocean
- Be discovered 200 years later as the only human dipshit to encase himself in 24-karat gold
Yehudi Menuhin and Pablo Casals needed to do no such thing. They were both supreme bad asses whose careers were as distinguished as can be. But there’s a third guy here, and while he may not have the lofty pedigree of the two giants with which he shares this fairly awkward and cheap-looking CD cover, he proves to be the standout on this disc, both musically and hair-stylistically.
Leslie Parnas is no slouch, with an impressive resume over the course of seven decades. He won a bunch of competitions, including the Tschaikovsky, he played under the likes of Ormandy and Leinsdorf, and he remains on the faculty of Boston University. But truth be told, before I ran across this disc, I had no idea who he was. And that’s my bad.
At the risk of totally passing over the Brahms and Tschaikovsky selections on this CD by saying that they’re good and should be enjoyed, the Brahms and Tschaikovsky selections on this CD are good and should be enjoyed. They’re beside the point, though, because there are other, finer takes on those two masterpieces. The more I listen, though, the more that I don’t think the same can be said for the remaining work on the disc.
Schelomo is without question Ernest Bloch’s most famous work, the centerpiece of his “Jewish” period and a masterpiece of the absolute highest order. It is music of unyielding intensity and drama, a forceful dialogue between the wise King Solomon (the cello) and the world around him (everybody else). There are several notable recordings and every cellist worth their salt has at least one. I’ve always been partial to the old Bernstein/Rostropovich/French National Orchestra performance where Lenny has that beard that he should have stayed with because it’s great and Rostropovich plays with the rage of white, bald, Russian, did-I-mention-white Othello. It’s a moving performance filled with drama and a deep connection between soloist, conductor, and orchestra.
And yet I think this one tops it. Parnas does not have that extra gear that Rostropovich had at his peak (in fairness, he is in the company of literally every other human being who ever lived), but he makes up for it with sheer commitment to the music and the stamina to push HARD for the duration of the piece. The result is less a musical performance and more like a communication tool to something otherworldly, a sort of seance in which the wisdom, power, pride, and sin of King Solomon is brought to life through sound. It sounds mildly retarded to think of it that way, but there’s no better way to describe it: more than any other cellist I’ve ever heard perform the piece, Parnas seems to do the best job of achieving Bloch’s goal of evoking the majesty of one of history’s great men without the aid of words.
And he’s not alone. Antal Dorati is someone who I and probably everyone else always associated with Eastern European music (the folks in Minnesota would certainly agree with that, methinks), but he is firmly in his element here. In fact it could be said that it is this competence in the rhythms, emotions, and styles of Romania and Hungary is part of what makes his leadership of Schelomo so effective. There is a balance between the crispness and stoutness of the primary rhythmic motive of the piece that cannot be beaten - it’s like a perfect Guinness or Jerome Bettis’ footwork. Yet in spite of the overall cleanliness of the rhythms and the transparency of the tuttis, Dorati still unleashes the full fury of the band at the work’s climax in a terrifying wall of sound that can only be matched by the aforementioned Bernstein reading. For their part, the North German Radio Orchestra sounds thrilled to be there, displaying some of the great orchestral intangibles like massive balls and giant balls and a deep commitment to kicking your ass.
Amazon has the recording available, both as a CD and an mp3 download. I would love to upload the performance, but in the SOPA age in which we are living, I don’t have any fucking idea if President Obama and Lars from Metallica will take a battering ram to the door of my apartment if I do. With that in mind, just buy the thing. Or don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll have missed something cool you might have otherwise heard.