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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra, H 196 (1930; revised 1939 and 1955) [26:08]
Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra, H 304 (1944-45) [36:07]
Concertino in C minor for Cello, Wind Instruments, Piano and Percussion, H 143 (1924) [13:54]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. Spanish Hall, Prague Castle, 24-28 June 1991. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

I am most happy to welcome this mid-price reissue of the Martinů Cello Concertos and Concertino. When these recordings were originally issued in 1992, they received glowing reviews from many critics. Then, as now, it was hard to understand why these works are not more often played in concerts. Along with Frank Martin’s Cello Concerto - I gave Christian Poltéra’s recording a rave review last year - the Martinů works would make a nice change from the more usual Shostakovich or Elgar concertos, among standard twentieth-century repertoire. They are all deserving of greater exposure. This is all the more reason to celebrate the appearance of this disc at mid-price. 

For me Martinů’s true forte as an orchestral composer lay in the concerto form rather than the symphony. Whereas I have never really taken to his symphonies, his concertos have for the most part appealed to me. He composed a large number of these works throughout his career, and lately I have been enjoying the concertante pieces for violin in the Hyperion series with Bohuslav Matoušek and the Czech Philharmonic under Christopher Hogwood (vol. 1; vol. 2; vol. 3; vol. 4).  Of the cello works, the only one I was at all well acquainted with before receiving this disc was the Sonata da camera in a Supraphon recording by Angelica May with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic. After listening to the Cello Concertos and Concertino numerous times, I find the First Concerto and Concertino overall superior to the Second Concerto and the Sonata da camera. The performances of the three works here by Rafael Wallfisch, however, leave nothing to be desired. He is expertly partnered by Bělohlávek and the venerable Czech Philharmonic once again. The sound on this Chandos disc is also up to the label’s highest standard. 

The Cello Concerto No. 1, after being revised twice, seems to be of perfect length. It is very well orchestrated, too, opening with a majestic and joyous statement by the full orchestra featuring the trumpet. And what a luminous sound those Czech Philharmonic trumpets make! This not to imply that the cello as a solo instrument is slighted one bit. On the contrary, it gets virtuoso treatment throughout the concerto, treatment that Wallfisch meets handily. There is a particularly yearning cello theme beginning at 2:10 that is very haunting. The slow movement contains plentiful lyricism, too, opening with clarinet and bassoon leading to a gorgeous solo trumpet melody before the cello takes over. The movement contains two powerful, orchestral climaxes that bring some dissonance to the work, but ends with a repeat of a gloriously lyrical cello theme from earlier in the movement. The finale is lighter and more rhythmic, but also contains a darker and more somber episode before concluding in high spirits. The revised versions of this concerto were dedicated to the great French cellist Pierre Fournier, who premiered them, as he did the Frank Martin Cello Concerto. 

The Cello Concerto No. 2 is some ten minutes longer than the First Concerto and at times it feels like it could use some revising or at least pruning, especially the slow movement which meanders a bit. It is a more lyrical work than its predecessor and does not have the dramatic interest of that work. Its finale, however, is light and tuneful and retains its joyful mood to the end. Overall, it sounds like the mature Martinů piece it is and is in general an attractive concerto. Again, Wallfisch and Bělohlávek do it complete justice. 

The final work on the CD is the single-movement Concertino Martinů composed in the mid-twenties. It is as typical of this period in the composer’s career as the later ones are of theirs. By this I mean it is more of a neo-Baroque piece that is witty and jazzy. It is scored for small orchestra without strings, except for the solo cello, and with prominent parts for the piano and snare drum. In some ways it reminds me of some of Hindemith’s Kammermusik pieces of the twenties, but with Martinů’s signature stamped all over it. It is a delightful work where the winds interact with the cello as equals, though it contains a cadenza before the 11:00 mark that lasts for nearly two minutes and shows off the cellist’s virtuosity very well. It goes without saying that the performers here are fully into the idiom with Wallfisch providing a wonderfully full cello sound and technical mastery. The recording, itself, could hardly be bettered with its perfect balance of cello and the other instruments. 

Thus, if you want a recording of these works, and you should if you do not know them - or even if you do from other recordings - you should snap this one up at once. It is doubtful a better one will come along anytime soon, and the price is right. 

Leslie Wright

see also Review by Rob Barnett



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