A professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music and the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Robert Cohen is—like many of his string-playing predecessors and colleagues—deeply committed to music education and training. Particularly noteworthy is his Cello Clinic, where he offers expert diagnosis and remedial instruction for players with physical or mental difficulties. He is also known for creating unique illustrative and exploratory projects, mounted in conjunction with various major music festivals and often involving cross-platform collaborations between various arts disciplines.
Cohen’s playing is a testament to the quality of cello pedagogy in the twentieth century. Son of the virtuoso violinist Raymond Cohen, he studied with legendary cellists William Pleeth, Jacqueline du Pré, André Navarra and Mstislav Rostropovich and combines many of their best traits in his own superlative playing. In all the items selected here his approach is clean and tight with an engaging open resonance. Vibrato is used relatively sparingly, revealing a beautiful sonority developed from the right arm. All of this offsets his thoughtful and sensitive musicianship, aptly shown in his 1990 Bach Cello Suite in C, which is sensitive to Bach’s sound world with an urgency in accentuations, a clear sense of the improvisatory, and a sparing tone.
In mainstream Romantic repertoire Cohen’s playing is, if anything, rather less constrained. The Dvořák Concerto (1981) is a truly beautiful performance. Arguably, it is slightly too closely recorded for the cello, but rather than exposing deficiencies this amplifies Cohen’s accuracy of attack on shorter notes and virtuosic passagework. The Elgar Concerto (1978), which won a Silver Disc, begins a little rustically but soon settles down to a highly distinguished reading: well-paced and in many ways preserving the architecture of Beatrice Harrison’s 1928 recording under Elgar. In his new rôle as cellist of the Fine Arts Quartet, Cohen proves his worth as an intelligent chamber musician in Saint-Saëns’ conversational Barcarolle (2012).
In twentieth-century works Cohen’s strengths create convincing renditions and he is a powerful advocate for some less well-known repertoire. Walton’s Cello Concerto, for example, is not so familiar as his Violin and Viola Concertos, but the opening (in quasi-Prokofiev style), the exhilarating middle movement and the intense finale are performed with aplomb and a convincing sense of gesture by Cohen in his 1993 performance. This is also true of the ‘River’ Concerto by Beamish (1998), which plays to Cohen’s strengths in its wide variety of texture, shape and colour.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)