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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Sonata No. 1 H277 (1939) [20.38]
Cello Sonata No. 2 H286 (1941) [21.31]
Cello Sonata No. 3 H340 (1952) [20.20]
Cello Concerto No. 2 H304 (1945) [38.04]
Variations on a Theme of Rossini for cello and piano H290 (1942) [8.41]
Variations on a Slovak Folksong for cello and piano H378 (1959) [10.15]
Saša Večtomov (cello)
Josef Páleníček (piano)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Zdeněk Košler
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, June 1966 (concerto); Domovina Studio, Prague, Apr-June 1968 ADD
Tribute to Saša Večtomov
SUPRAPHON SU 3586 112 [2CDs: 62.49+57.18]

These recordings were made during the first blooming of the Martinů revival. The composer, effectively an exile from his homeland, had died only seven years before the first of these recordings were made. The seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth passed in 1965. With agonising slowness the then Czechoslovakia began to produce the Supraphon LPs that acted as emissaries for his music across the world. In the 1970s these LPs were still in evidence in record shops and in the UK at the bigger retail chains like W.H. Smiths who often purchased them in bulk and included them in their racks during the January and summer sales. Picking up these Supraphons at between 75p and Ł1.25 broadened not a few horizons. Of course their poorly translated notes provided easy scavenging for the critics but their repertoire coverage and the often vivid quality of the performances won many new friends among young and impecunious collectors.

Alexandr or Saša Večtomov (1930-1989) had distinguished musical forebears. His father, Ivan, was leader of the Czech Phil. He studied at the Prague Conservatory with Ladislav Zelenka and completed his studies with Kozolupov in Moscow. He won many prizes (1955 Spring Prague; 1959 Casals in Mexico) and toured worldwide with the Czech Trio. He taught at Prague's Academy of Music.

Josef Páleníček (1914-1991) has recorded the third and fourth of Martinů's piano concertos. He was taught in Prague and Paris. In 1934 he founded the Smetana Trio later dubbed the Czech Trio joined from 1956 by Saša Večtomov. Between 1949 and 1962 he was often soloist at concerts of the Czech Phil.

The two artists deliver warm and internalised readings of the three sonatas. Večtomov's tone is chesty, richly endowed, nasal and 'sticky' when high in the register. The approach is to accentuate the melodic so there is a more rounded, undulant contour than in the very slightly angular readings of Jírí Hanousek and Paul Kaspar and the spare recording tone on Centaur CRC 2207. These three sonatas coupled on CD1 are products of Martinů's high maturity. Večtomov and Páleníček make a grand tragic statement of the Largo of the Second Sonata displaying an impressive grip on structure. The singing lines of the Fourth Symphony reach out from their allegro comodo (tr. 6). The recording in the Domovina Studio conspires to emphasise the burgeoning warmth of this music especially noticeable in the last two sonatas. The First Sonata is by no means the neo-classical frivolity one might expect from its partly Parisian provenance. It is closer to the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, piano and timpani. The Rossini Variations are on a theme from Mose in Egitto. It was written for Gregor Piatigorsky to a commission. It is bright, pompous, humorous, hiccuping and ultimately Paganinian in its showy and storm-tossed leger-de-main. It has its stilly night as well in the Pierrot moonscape (6.41). The Slovak Variations were written just six months at the home of Paul Sacher (who premiered both Gilgamesh and The Greek Passion) before the composer’s death. This time the theme (Kebych já vedela, kde môj milý kosí) is allowed to bloom towards a nostalgic sun. This is one of Martinů's most concentratedly lyrical pieces. You may have in mind the folk based piano solos but here he goes further - this is the pastoral landscape intensified, the composer with head-bowed - reverential. In the last three minutes rhythmic life floods back with stamping rhythms and swinging melodic material which occasional reminds the listener of Szymanowski's Harnasie music.

 

Večtomov's Supraphon LP recording of the Cello Concerto No. 2 gained the Grand Prix Paris' Academie Charles Cros in 1970. Večtomov premiered the concerto in České Budějovice in May 1965 with the same conductor and orchestra who recorded the work just over a year later. Martinů wrote the work during his long American exile between Christmas 1944 and February 1945. His aching homesickness can at this vantage point be seen as an emotional counterpart to Rachmaninov's amour lointain for Russia. Martinů's Czechoslovakia and Rachmaninov's Russia were remote and unattainable and not just because of geography. The Second Concerto was the last of his works for cello and orchestra. It is infused with the natural singing soul of the cello - an accent apt to Večtomov's innate sympathies. In none of the alternative recordings does the dancing songfulness of the piece communicate so well. The cello is recorded closely and makes a lovely sound though, as with all the 1960s recordings here, without high-end brilliance or much transparency. In its place there is a surging fullness of sound - listen to the horn-topped density at 6.40 in the first movement. Ultimately this work suffers a debilitatingly glorious dose of languor and nostalgia. It is no doubt exactly what Martinů wanted to say but across almost 40 minutes it may be just too much of a good thing. If you want only the cello concertos then Wallfisch on Chandos is your best bet. Otherwise these warm recordings of most of the cello works is well worth getting. Večtomov's songful Slovak Variations, the intense first movement of the Second Concerto and largo of the Second Sonata are the outstanding highlights of this retrospective.

This is not the complete cello output. Missing are the Concertino (1924), Concerto No. 1 (1930, 2nd version 1939, final 1955) and the Sonata da Camera.

This set with its slightly congested opaque sound is a treat for Martinů lovers who want to hear how the two champions of his music developed a performing style.

Rob Barnett



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