The prolific outputs of Bohuslav Martinu and Elliot Carter are
such that some of their works will always be always be less heard
than they deserve. So it is with their cello sonatas, music that
does full justice to their respective talents, and which could
fully justify a central position in the instrument’s repertoire,
but which sadly has yet to find one. Lionel Handy and Nigel Clayton
use the composers’ anniversaries as the nominal justification
for this recording project, bringing in the slightly less neglected
Messiaen on similar grounds. The disc records a performance project
by the two players in 2008-9, in which these anniversary commemorations
were combined with premieres of new works, one of which, by Joe
Cutler, is included. The other works all date from the second
quarter of the 20th
century, giving a sense of historical
logic if not necessarily stylistic coherency.
Lionel Handy was formerly the principal cellist of the Academy
of St Martin in the Fields and of the fondly remembered Bournemouth
Sinfonietta. He is now a soloist with a taste for the twentieth
century repertoire. The interpretations he gives here demonstrate
an intuitive feeling for large-scale form combining with a meticulous
attention to the detail of the music. So, for instance, where
Martinu structures the outer movements of his First Sonata around
climactic codas, Handy ensures that the preceding music is always
anticipating and leading the ear on to the spectacular conclusion.
Similarly, where Elliot Carter moulds the first movement of his
sonata around continuity and even pacing, Handy’s empathy with
these principles is such that he can find musical spontaneity,
even in this most structured of musical environments.
Less effective, however, are the more lyrical movements, the adagio
the Carter and the Lento
of the Martinu. Here the music
struggles under the sheer logic of the interpretive rigour. The
interpretations of these movements benefit from the performers’ discipline
to the extent that the vibrato and range of articulation is always
elegantly controlled, and the rhythmic interest, especially in
the Martinu is always clear. But the overall impression in both
cases is of dispassionate, slightly stilted and generally unengaging
Part of the issue is Handy’s tone. He produces a resonant, earthy
tone, which is often very satisfying, especially when, as in
of the Carter, he plays sustained lines in
the lower register. But what he never does is sing, and any lyricism
that the music calls for is always notable by its absence. So
in the finale of the Martinu, where the composer combines jazzy
syncopations in the piano with very complex cello figurations,
the performers acknowledge, and admirably convey, every detail
they find in the score, but without the poetry that would make
it flow and bring it to life. On the other hand, it is a refreshing
change, given that most cellists veer to the other extreme, paying
meagre lip service to any notions of neo-classical austerity
in this and other pre-war chamber music.
Such comparisons become all the clearer in the two Messiaen works on the disc.
The first is a transcription (by Handy) of the early Thème et Variations
originally for violin and piano. A curious separation emerges between the high
piano textures and the transposed solo line, but otherwise the results are pleasingly
idiomatic. Even here, in a work of such sectional structure, Handy’s large-scale
structural thinking is the guiding principle of the performance, which builds
to satisfyingly rich sonorities at the climax. The arrangement also serves to
emphasise the close stylistic relationship between this work and the Quartet
for the End of Time
, written just a few years later, if under very different
circumstances. The last track on the disc is the Louange
à l’Éternité de
movement of the quartet, which, by virtue of its stylistic relationship
with the variations, avoids the appearance of a bleeding chunk. Again it is a
fairly straight performance, but none the worse for that. The otherwise informative
liner-note repeats Messiaen’s now somewhat discredited story about the cello
at the first performance having only three strings, but whatever the truth of
that matter, the performance tastefully avoids some of the overly atmospheric
effects that the story of the work’s genesis can engender from performers.
There is less Messiaen in Music for Parakeets
title suggests. It was written for the present performers by
Joe Cutler, whose relationships with his own titles are usually
much freer than their apparent specificity suggests. The principle
of imitation between the two players is about as much as the
work has to do with its title, with a repeated motif alternating
between the cello and the piano, at first in a relaxed mood,
but violently shifting to more aggressive textures later on.
This is an impressively assured composition, which manages something
all too rare in recent music: substance and autonomy based on
a minimum of musical means.
Nigel Clayton is a sympathetic accompanist throughout this recording.
He shares Handy’s disciplined approach and never threatens to
upstage or drown out. The recording, made at the University of
Surrey, is serviceable rather than exceptional, the various ranges
of the piano occasionally uneven and the cello somewhat distant.
But on balance, the CD is a rewarding listen, the sheer discipline
and interpretive integrity of the performers distinguishing it
from much of the competition. Not that there is much competition
with this repertoire, which makes the recordings of the Martinu
and the Elliot Carter sonatas in particular all the more valuable.