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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Cello Concerto (1965-66) [24’10"]
The Four Elements (1963-64) [18’46"]
Jean Decroos (cello)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Rec. live: Radio Hilversum, 9 December 1970 (Concerto) and December 1965 (Elements) ADD
DORON MUSIC DRC 3044 [43’26"]


For devotees of Swiss composer Frank Martin, this CD might be indispensable, although the same performance of the Cello Concerto does appear on Q Disc’s 14-disc collection, Bernard Haitink: the Radio Recordings. (Granted, you have to buy the entire box to get it.) Taped from live performances, these are totally winning recordings. In addition, both of these pieces seem to be rare on disc, which is a bit of a surprise given their high quality.

The superb cellist, Jean Decroos, is the soloist in the Concerto, originally written for Pierre Fournier and dedicated to Paul Sacher, and the work is cast in three movements that are all approximately the same length. The Allegro moderato, opens with an impassioned phrase for the cello alone, which is then joined by the orchestra. This is followed by a gentle, introspective Adagietto, and then the somewhat quizzical, elegant Finale vivace. Decroos attacks the piece with great vigor, not sacrificing precision in the process. In the second movement, Decroos weaves in and out of the ensemble with a beautifully fluid touch. One of the photographs in the booklet shows him shaking hands with Martin, so I daresay Mr. Decroos speaks with some authority – the performance certainly sounds that way. Further, in his eloquent hands this work stands as a contender for consideration as one of the world’s great cello concertos. I was not familiar with the piece before this hearing, but have played it four or five times since the recording arrived.

The Four Elements was written for Ernest Ansermet’s eightieth birthday, and is a short, impressionistic study of each. Earth opens with a fanfare, a sort of "tuning" effect, and then the orchestra makes a relentless stride until the end repeats the opening. Water has a swirling feel that reminded me somewhat of parts of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and Air is notable for some winsome woodwind parts. Fire is the most frenzied of the four, with yet more echoes of the Earth motifs here and there, and then that fanfare appears again, before the work ends quietly. Martin’s colors are appealing, in a more tonal idiom than most, even during a period when others were exploring more atonal systems of composition (some of which still pester listeners to this day). The suavity in these pieces reminds me of the elegance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. I can’t imagine the average classical listener not responding to Martin’s mellow glow.

The live ambience is quite pleasant, with occasional audience noises evident but hardly distracting, and some tape hiss but not enough for my ears to care, and I will confess to a preference for modern sound in general with recordings. The orchestra plays beautifully, with a warm, well-blended tone that suits the material nicely. Given the recording dates, just five years apart, this project also serves as a nice snapshot of the group’s excellent work with Haitink during that decade, and for those who admire this conductor, this may be an essential purchase. One small caveat is the total CD time, which is just shy of 45 minutes. That might have been all right in 1980, but in 2004, I’d have included a third, even a fourth, Martin work just to make consumers happier.

Bruce Hodges



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