On March 29, 30 and 31, Houston Symphony Principal Cello Brinton Averil Smith performs Eugen d’Albert’s passionate Cello Concerto. In this post, Brinton explains how a great cellist of the past inspired him to champion this unknown masterpiece. Get tickets and more information here.
Eugen d’Albert’s Cello Concerto is something of a novelty today. Even most cellists are barely aware of its existence; however, this beautiful work was performed quite regularly in the early 20th century. Written in the Romantic tradition, the d’Albert concerto shows the influences of Liszt, Brahms and Wagner. D’Albert was considered Liszt’s greatest pupil, but gave up a flourishing performing career as a pianist to devote himself to composition. D’Albert was also married six times in his life and died en route to divorce his sixth wife, so it seems he was fairly busy on many fronts!
Unusually for a cellist, I grew up listening to this concerto because of my obsession with Emanuel Feuermann, who died in 1942 at the tragically young age of 39. Every cellist I have known who had the chance to hear Feuermann perform live considered him the greatest cellist they had ever heard, despite all of the legendary cellists who followed. Feuermann’s legacy survives today only in early mono recordings and a few captured live performances and radio broadcasts. Despite the primitive sound quality of these early recordings, one can hear from Feuermann a warmth and a virtuosity that remind me of the great violinists Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, and these qualities have been my ideals of cello-playing since I was a teenager.
Feuermann’s live performance of the d’Albert concerto in Carnegie Hall in 1940 was fortuitously recorded onto glass discs and has always defined the piece for me:
Romantic music like d’Albert’s needs the warmth of vibrato, the slides and the freedom that Feuermann brought to his performance. In his hands, the piece soars with one beautiful melody after another—almost like a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto for the cello.
I have always loved this piece and am thrilled the Houston Symphony has allowed me to advocate for beautiful but neglected repertoire like this concerto and our April 2017 revival of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto (recorded live in concert and now available on CD from Naxos). I am fortunate to have opportunities to play the traditional cello concerti with other orchestras, but only here in Houston can I experiment with these overlooked works that I believe deserve to be heard and loved. I am grateful to our administration and my colleagues for supporting these adventures and to you in the audience for taking a chance on them. I look forward to sharing this beautiful music with you. —Brinton Averil Smith
Principal Cello Brinton Averil Smith holds the Janice and Thomas Barrow Chair and is sponsored by Mrs. Zarine M. Boyce, Cornelia & Meredith Long and Mike Stude.