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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) [24:18]
Ballade for Cello and Piano (1949) [16:36]
8 Preludes for Piano (1947-48) [23:28]
Christian Poltéra (cello); Kathryn Stott (piano)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen
rec. Malmö Concert Hall, Malmö, Sweden, June 2007 (Concerto); Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden, July 2006 (Ballade, Preludes)
BIS BISCD1637 [65:32] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is a very welcome addition to the Frank Martin discography. I have never understood why Martin’s music is not better known and universally performed. His style and sound are instantly recognizable and yet he also fits in well with the mainstream twentieth-century modernism of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Berg. Of all his orchestral works, the only one that is encountered with any regularity is the Concerto for 7 Winds, Timpani, Percussion, and Strings. The disc under review here should help to establish his Cello Concerto as one of the major works of the genre. Moreover, the other two works recorded here are also worthy of much greater exposure. 

The Cello Concerto was written for Pierre Fournier and dedicated to Paul Sacher and they premiered the work with the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Fournier later performed it with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Their broadcast recording has been available over the web, but I have never heard it. I can only imagine it is superb. The work’s orchestral scoring is for the most part light and transparent so as not to disadvantage the cello soloist. The soloist begins the concerto with a poignant theme that has reminded some commentators of Vaughan Williams; but as this theme leads into the tarantella which more or less takes over the movement, there is no doubt we are hearing pure Martin. The second movement is an Adagietto that is darker in mood and begins with a memorable triadic theme played by woodwinds alone. It also includes a passacaglia, one of Martin’s favorite forms that demonstrate his great love for the music of J.S. Bach. The finale is rhythmic and colorful with the piano as part of the orchestral fabric and the saxophone adding a jazzy element — as it did in the first movement. Like many of Martin’s compositions the work ends in major tonality, but its key relationships are less clearly defined. Martin studied Schoenberg’s oeuvre and absorbed both dodecaphonic and atonal elements in his works. Although there is no doubt that the cello is the main protagonist and challenging for the soloist, the work is not just a virtuoso showpiece. Christian Poltéra is easily up to these challenges and gives us a fervent account of the concerto that leaves nothing to be desired. The orchestra plays a major role throughout, and the Malmö Symphony with Ollila-Hannikainen do themselves proud. It is good to see such a fine cellist devoting his energy to works that are not performed as much as they deserve to be rather than just sticking to the basic repertoire. Two additional recordings of the Cello Concerto have appeared in recent years, one by Quirine Viersen with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra on Etcetera and the other by Jean Decroos and the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Haitink on Doros Music. Both received enthusiastic reviews here, but I have heard not heard them. However, I cannot imagine either of these being superior to Poltéra. 

For the next work on the disc, Poltéra shares the spotlight with Kathryn Stott. The Ballade for Cello and Piano is one of six such pieces that Martin wrote for solo instruments. Most of these exist in two versions, the original with piano and then with orchestral accompaniment. I have heard both versions of this particular Ballade and can say that the piano version is in no way inferior to the one with orchestra. Rather than being a “mini-concerto,” the work is more like a fantasy for solo cello and piano with a somewhat freer form. Poltéra and Stott do full justice to the work. For a version with orchestra, I highly recommend the Chandos CD of all six ballades performed by the London Philharmonic under Matthias Bamert. 

The disc under review concludes with what is probably the least known of these three Martin works: his 8 Preludes for Piano. Written for Dinu Lipatti, the Preludes contain a wide range of moods from the very serious to the light-hearted. Martin includes twelve-tone technique in some of the preludes, though overall they are tonal. The two longest preludes are the darkest. In fact, the penultimate prelude is nearly twice as long as any of the others. The cycle ends in sprightly fashion with a virtuosic rondo. Stott impresses with both the power and the dexterity necessary to convey the variety contained in this music. Her lightness of touch is especially winning in the fifth prelude, marked Vivace, and she concludes the cycle in great style. The 8 Preludes are Martin’s most substantial piano work and should be taken up by more pianists. They could belong on any recital of twentieth-century music. 

The recording and production are up to BIS’s high standards, and the notes in the accompanying booklet are both succinct and informative. I have only one nit to pick: although this CD rightly showcases Poltéra, pianist Kathryn Stott deserves more than mention in small print on the front of the booklet. After all, she has the Preludes to herself and plays an important part in the Ballade, which account for well over half of the disc’s total timing. Will not disappoint anyone new to Frank Martin or anyone with an interest in twentieth-century music.

Leslie Wright


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