Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Thème et Variations
arr. By Lionel Handy for Cello and Piano [9:11]
Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Sonata No.1 for Cello and Piano [17:42]
Joe CUTLER (b. 1968)
Music for Parakeets
Elliot CARTER (b. 1908)
Sonata for Cello and Piano [22:41]
à l’Éternité de Jésus from Quatuor pour la fin du temps [9:41]
Lionel Handy (cello); Nigel Clayton (piano)
rec. PATS Studio, University of Surrey, 5-6 January 2009. Stereo. DDD

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 of 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 performance.

Part of the issue is Handy’s tone. He produces a resonant, earthy tone, which is often very satisfying, especially when, as in the adagio 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 Jésus 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 than the 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.

Gavin Dixon