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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Cello Concerto (1965) [25:55]
Trois Danses for Oboe and Harp (1970) [17:05]
Ballade for cello and chamber orchestra (1949) [17:03]
Passacaille for strings (1952) [11:07]
Quirine Viersen (cello); Henk Swinnen (oboe); Kerstin Scholten (harp)
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra/Kenneth Montgomery
rec. Muziekcentrum van de omroep, Hilversum, June 2001, September 2004
ETCETERA KTC 1290 [71:13]

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The Swiss composer Frank Martin toyed with serialism and counted Stockhausen amongst his pupils but his music ultimately remained tonal. Indeed the very opening of his solitary Cello Concerto could be mistaken by the unwary for Vaughan Williams, a long-breathed rhapsodic, folksy solo marked Lento which immediately exposes the cellist’s credentials. Thereafter Martin’s treatment of the material is highly personal and rather free in form within a conventional three-movement structure. This is no virtuoso display piece – various other instruments are important including the alto saxophone, celesta, harp and piano. At the heart of the opening movement the saxophone hints at jazz rhythms which dominate the finale before a return to the initial material and a slightly ambiguous conclusion. In between comes an Adagietto which is profound and often dark-toned. Written at the request of Pierre Fournier and dedicated to Paul Sacher, this work strikes me as one of the finest cello concertos of the 20th century. Seldom recorded so far, it seems to be awaiting the recognition that is due and may come from this superb rendition by Quirine Viersen. Her playing is intense, highly-controlled and yet sensitive to the passionate undercurrents in the music. The supporting musicians under Kenneth Montgomery are also very convincing.

If the Cello Concerto is the raison d’ętre for this disc, the fillers are also welcome. The Trois Danses for oboe and harp are lighter in feeling and hardly sound like the work of an octogenarian. The soloists are accompanied by a string quintet and string orchestra in a kind of mini-double concerto. The work was written for Heinz and Ursula Holliger and the three dances are Seguiryia, Soledad and Rumba. Henk Swinnen and Kerstin Scholten prove to be an excellent team of soloists.

Martin wrote six Ballades for solo instruments plus orchestra. The Ballade for cello is a substantial work which often presages the moods of the concerto. If anything, it is an even more personal utterance and Quirine Viersen is again equal to its challenges.

The Passacaille for strings was originally written for organ in 1944. Martin made two arrangements – the version performed here for strings and one for full orchestra. The liner errs in giving the date of this arrangement as 1962 - although it is correct in the booklet - and the subtitle “original version for organ” might appear to suggest that is what will be heard. The work is based on a repetitive theme in bass and variations in the upper voices. It is the least immediately approachable of the works on the disc and I was left slightly regretful that the original was not included instead - it was Martin’s only work for the instrument. There is here a further slight glitch in the documentation which states “A bass theme eight bars long in ? time….” – this was presumably an oversight.

The recorded sound is “state-of-the-art” with excellent balances and natural perspectives. Leaving aside the small points mentioned above (and a “chello” on the spine of the case), the documentation is informative and provides a useful conspectus of Martin’s life.

Frank Martin’s cello concerto is a formidable work and here receives very powerful advocacy – highly recommended.

Patrick C Waller



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