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Fantasia Swensen CHRCD168
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György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Sonata for solo cello
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher
Bent Sřrensen (b. 1958)
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Sonata-Fantasy for solo cello, Op 104
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Sonata for solo cello, Op 8
Jonathan Swensen (cello)
rec. 2021, West Sussex, UK

It’s a tough act: a CD recital of modern(ish) works for solo cello. Yet this Swensen (brother to violinist Joseph Swensen) is nothing abashed. It says something that in his foreword Jonathan Swensen writes “I have tried to make this album one that will stay fresh whether you listen today or in 10 years’ time.” The programme, let alone the playing and recording qualities, sings along with this article of faith.

The Armenian composer, Khachaturian wrote a whole sequence of works with titles that moderate the ‘Concerto’ designation. There are three Concerto-Rhapsodies to go with his outright concertos for violin, piano and cello - one each. We hardly ever hear the Khachaturian Sonata-Fantasy (cello) and much the same can be said of two other late works: Sonata-Monologue for solo violin (1975) and Sonata-Song for viola (1978). The cello work, at almost 14 minutes, is thoughtful, progresses instinctively, sings out and from 7:20 makes joyous play with a delicate folk dance.

János Starker (Saga and Delos) opened up the world of the Kodály solo Sonata to me on a Saga LP (reissued by Forgotten Records). The Starker found in the three-movement Sonata a world of perilous colours and adventurous derring-do. Swensen, aided by an unblushing recording that reaches out and grabs you, is no reticent. He plays to the work’s lyricism, high-darting harmonics, exuberant pizzicato and dynamic stratification as if it were a work for cello and orchestra. There’s nothing of solo instrument poverty, desiccation or vapid display about it. It makes me want to hear Swensen in the glorious Aulis Sallinen Concerto where I am sure he would bid fair to vie with Arto Noras.

The Ligeti Sonata (1948) is in two movements (Dialogo; Capriccio) and - Kodály pupil that he was - clearly absorbed his teacher’s lessons and singing folk world. Its harmonic pélerinage, often detected in the work’s pizzicato, is turbulent and exerts a firm hold on folk-cantabile. Swensen would also find a kindred flame in Bax’s unusual work for solo cello, the Rhapsodic Ballad.

As we know, works did not flood out from the pen of Henri Dutilleux. His Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher are alive with modernistic fantasy. This aspect is at its most unchained in the first strophe, the second being open to greater lyricism and the last being breathtakingly feral and avant-garde. The work arose in fits and starts from a Rostropovich commission to mark Sacher’s 70th birthday.

Denmark’s Bent Sřrensen wrote this melancholy Farewell-Fantasia for Swensen. It micro-balances introspection and extroversion but largely favours the world of the ‘inscape’. It’s quite striking in its yaws and extrusions of the cello’s voice at 4:50. There are also Bachian cantare moments. All in all, it’s a very exploratory work.

The liner-notes for this disc are contributed by Daniel Jaffé and are in English only. As coincidence would have it, I have just started reading Jaffé’s Phaidon Press book on the life of Prokofiev (2008). It is, so far, typical of the excellent, now long remaindered, Phaidon “20th Century Composer” series which are well worth running to ground for their reflective approach and staunch avoidance of the turgid. Series’ contributions by Stephen Oliver, Guy Rickards and Jessica Duchen also rank high.

This Champs Hill CD is presented in a standard plastic jewel box but slotted into a card sleeve.

A robustly fresh recital that abominates the obvious. Can Swensen continue in this vein? I hope he does.

Rob Barnett

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