Last month The Universal Music Group released the latest CD by American cello virtuoso Bion Tsang. Titled “Cantabile” this latest CD features two of the most important works for the cello and orchestra, Schumann’s  A Minor Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Joining Tsang on the recording is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which is led by conductor and Violinist Scott Yoo.

cantabile front
cantabile back cover

For those unfamiliar with cellist Bion Tsang; at age 11 he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and since then has performed with such Orchestras as the Atlanta Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and The American Symphony Orchestra, to name just a few. He has collaborated with musicians such as Jaime Laredo, Anne Akiko Meyers, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leon Fleisher amongst others and has recorded 12 CDs for such labels as Harmonia Mundi and Sony Classical.

Bion Tsang and Scott Yoo have been long-time friends, and when it came time to record works for cello and orchestra. Yoo was the first choice of conductor for Tsang. As Tsang explains, “Scott and I go back to the early nineties. Our first concert together was with the Boston Chamber Music Society, and we just hit it off right from the start. When I was thinking about making concerto recordings...of course the first thought I had was I have to grab Scott!”  The two of them have now made two successful recordings with The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The first recording featured Dvorak and Enescu’s Cello concertos, and now this second record with Schumann’s Cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.

What makes this recording of the Schumann Concerto particularly unique and new is that Tsang is playing from a new published edition of the concerto that has been released that has just Schumann’s markings. Previously cellists have been playing from a heavily edited version of the concerto. As Tsang explains, “I had already known about the history of the first publication not really honoring Schumann’s intent…it’s a lot to go through that manuscript and try to make sense of it…as I was doing that; low and behold my wife’s old roommate, [cellist] Josephine Knight happened to release a new edition that has sifted through all of the edited markings...previously cellists have known the piece through that highly edited version.”

One of the things that happens when the edited markings are done away with is that the concerto becomes much more of a singing and intimate love letter. “This piece is somewhat autobiographical…it represents his struggle with bipolar disorder…it also represents the rock that his wife Clara becomes to him. The unedited version is more subtle…there is this underlying current of the two sides of his personality that he knows he has” states Tsang. For those interested, Schumann actually had names these two characters in his personality; the passionate and angst ridden Florestan, and the introverted melancholic Eusebius. The effect for listener with this new version of the concerto is that there is far less Florestan and much more Eusebius. It works beautifully!

The other big piece on the CD is Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. For Tsang the piece represents both a Cantabile singing piece and a showpiece for the cellist. “Tchaikovsky was arguably the greatest writer of melody. Throughout the piece there is always singing, but he also asks thing of the cellist that I don’t think had ever been asked before in regard to technical demands…it is a wonderful showpiece that cellists love to play and say ‘Hey! Look what we can do.”

Bookending the album are two versions of Pablo Casals piece “Song of the Birds.” The recording starts with the original version for cello and string orchestra, and then the last track on the CD is Tsang performing a version for just solo cello. “I thought these two versions would make a nice arc to the CD…and I also wanted to end on a very personal note by just ending by myself.” The effect is both personal and intimate for the listener but for Tsang as well. He dedicated the recording to the memory of his father Paul Ja-Min Tsang.

Cantabile is a fabulous disc full of lyricism beauty. Do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in the singing cello of Bion Tsang!

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