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Erling Blöndal Bengtsson was born to musical parents—his father a violinist and his mother a pianist—and was given a violin at only three years old. Seeing that Erling insisted on holding it vertically like a cello, his father put an endpin on a viola so that he could begin to play on that; a little later a family friend who was a luthier crafted him a mini-cello which must have been one of the smallest ever made. His first formal cello lessons were with Fritz Dietzmann, principal cellist of the Royal Danish Opera Orchestra. During World War II his musical activities and opportunities for performance were restricted, but soon afterwards he became known in his mother’s native Iceland and received Icelandic state support to go to the Curtis Institute where he studied with the great Russian-American Piatigorsky who described him as a ‘colleague’ and taught him in a collaborative manner. When Piatigorsky moved to California in 1950, Bengtsson took over as his assistant at the Curtis for a short period before returning to Denmark in 1953.

Versatility in terms of repertoire is well represented in Bengtsson’s discography, while the stylistic features of his playing are conventional and strongly suggestive of the post-war international style. Considered Denmark’s greatest cellist, he was known especially for performances of Walton’s Concerto, Scandinavian repertoire and the Bach Suites, which he often played flawlessly from memory in concert. His 1985 recording of the Suites demonstrates tidy and clean playing from the outset; the livelier dance forms move along with well-punctuated phrase shapes, although in the slower movements there is too much vibrato for recent taste in this repertory.

The more modern virtuoso demands of Piatti’s Caprices (of which Bengtsson’s 1997 recording is one of only a tiny handful) are equally well managed, with a fine sense of drama, some highly-accented playing in the first Caprice and impressive double-stop virtuosity in the third. Equally laudable are the Beethoven cello sonatas, here represented by Op. 102 No. 2 (1988), which is a straightforward rendition in the modern style but conveying well the necessary nobility of tone. Haydn’s Concerto No. 1 (recorded 1993)—not an exciting work in comparison with later concertos—is full of lively contrast in Bengtsson’s hands, and his own cadenzas, whilst entirely modern in conception, are very well composed, balancing extended virtuosity with suitable references to thematic material.

It is in more recent material that Bengtsson’s playing really comes alive. This includes a fine Debussy Sonata (2000), which conveys well the complex and remote regions accessed by this late work. Kodály’s unaccompanied Op. 8 Sonata (1994) is notably clean and bright and shows off Bengtsson’s excellent command of texture and dramatization. There is a menacing quality to the second movement, even if vibrato in the first is a little wide and exaggerated. One of the finest recordings of this accomplished cellist must be the Hindemith Solo Sonata (1994), which reveals a very secure technical foundation in this difficult work and a tremendous sense of interpretative power. The opening is strongly accented, whilst the fourth movement is a clean and relentless moto perpetuo executed with fantastic energy and accuracy.

In all his recordings Bengtsson reveals himself to be a cellist in the very first rank of modern players, whilst film of him performing at his seventy-fifth birthday celebrations show both his cast-iron technique and energetic interpretative drive quite undiminished by age.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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5:42:21 AM, 28 November 2015
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