February 1, 2023

Fantasia - Works For Solo Cello

This Champs Hill recital disc is a piece of the prize package for the Windsor Festival International String Competition, which Jonathan Swensen won in 2019. And what an impressive recording debut it is. Listen to how sensitively the Danish cellist realises the cantabile markings in the opening ‘Dialogo’ of Ligeti’s Sonata, for instance, evoking a deep, Mussorgskian melancholy. And I love how fearlessly he careens around the sharp corners of the second-movement ‘Capriccio’. Alisa Weilerstein’s phrasing (Decca) is neater but there’s something to be said for the thrillingly chaotic chase Swensen leads us on. His Dutilleux is similarly eventful – full of stark contrasts of character and tone – and although less even and clear in the finale’s passagework than, say, Emmanuelle Bertrand (Harmonia Mundi, 12/15), it’s more action-packed.

The Farewell-Fantasia of Bent Sørensen (b1958) – written for Swensen and here receiving its recording premiere – is a significant addition to the solo repertory. Given the title, it should not come as a surprise that the music is consistently wistful and full of yearning – qualities that the cellist uses as an emotional tie to bind the short sections into an eloquent whole. Khachaturian’s late Sonata-Fantasie is another discovery of sorts. It’s been recorded several times before but the versions I’ve heard seem wan in comparison. Swensen plays it here with proselytising fervour, and I’m frankly surprised it hasn’t popped up on other recordings of the Kodály Sonata, as its sophisticated folksiness makes it an ideal companion piece.

As for the Kodály itself, Swensen’s interpretation can stand with the best of them. He always leads with the melody, no matter how complex the texture, creating a vigorous narrative current that runs through each movement from beginning to end – yet, at the same time, his playing is illuminating in its detail, aided by what’s clearly a formidable technique. Listen, say, to the evenness and power of his trills at 5'52" in the first movement, how expressively he bends his tone in the subsequent melodic phrases, then the thickset, resinous quality of the chords that follow. He conveys immense sadness in the Adagio con gran espressione – and how masterfully he sustains the doleful mood – while the dervish-y, dancelike finale is an earthy and highly visceral tour de force. In short: fantastic.