Cello Quartet – Original Works
Rudolf MATZ (1901 – 1988)
Introduzione e Scherzo [3:05]
Domenico LABOCETTA (1823 – 1896)
Adagio [5:05]
Georg GOLTERMAN (1824 – 1898)
Romance [3:37]
Guillaume PAQUE (1825 – 1876)
Souvenir de Curis [3:57]
Michel CORRETTE (1709 – 1795)
Le Phénix [9:04]
Friedrich GRÜTZMACHER (1832 – 1903)
Hymnus Op.65 [4:16]
Wilhelm FITZENHAGEN (1848 – 1890)
Ave Maria Op.41 [4:35]
Georg Christoph WAGENSEIL (1715 – 1777)
Sonata in C major [15:08]
Jaume PAHISSA (1880 – 1969)
Dos corals d’enyorament [2:17]
Enric MORERA (1865 – 1942)
Melangia [5:28]
Rogel-Li Huget I TAGELL (1882 – 1956)
Malagueña [4:39]
Pau CASALS (1876 – 1973)
El cant dels ocells [3:24]
Tritton Cello Ensemble (Albert Roman, Wolfgang Lehner, Bongshin Ko, Josep Bassal)
rec. Foundation Pro Musica e Cultura de Saint Moritz, Switzerland, 7 July 2008 and 22 – 26 November 2009

A chamber ensemble of four identical instruments is always something of a rarity. Nominal saxophone or clarinet quartets are made up of different members of that instrument’s family. The main issue for composers will always be how to overcome the issue of all the instruments available occupying the same range in terms of pitch and timbre. It could be argued however that a cello quartet is the most viable option since a well played cello is able to perform comfortably in alt while at the same time the lowest string provides a deep and comfortable bass on which the music can be constructed. The repertoire of original compositions for cello quartet is strangely limited with few if any famous composers tempted by the challenge this combination provides. Yet think about some instances where a group of cellos dominates. The openings of both Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture are stunning. Then, and probably most famously, the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 would appear in many people’s ‘Top 100’. I would venture it is the close-knit lyrical intensity of the cello group in all of those works that impresses.

So it was with a considerable amount of optimistic expectation that I started listening to this recital by the Tritton Cello Ensemble. The disc starts arrestingly and well, a powerfully projected phrase by the unison group over a portentous pizzicato walking-bass line leads to exactly the kind of closely voiced lyrical passage described in the famous works above. This forms the very brief Introduzione of composer Rudolf Matz’s Introduzione e Scherzo – one of four works on this CD receiving its world premiere recording - that being said none of the eleven works were previously known to me and only Wagenseil is a composer I recognised. The scherzo of the Matz work is all scurrying semiquavers over more pizzicati and immediately concerns arise. My listening notes use the word effortful repeatedly. Having no access to scores for any of the works on the disc I cannot speculate on the composer’s instructions to the players. But my sense is that this scherzo would benefit from a Mendelssohnian lightness to which a dose of 20th century malice is added. Instead we get a performance where every barline is accented as though the ensemble is struggling to hold it all together. This is not helped by the close recording which makes for a rather oppressive listening experience. None of the four members of the ensemble are known to me and it is not clear who is playing the upper part. Clearly they are all good players but the lead player does suffer from a performance style which I can only characterise as less than serene. You can hear what I mean 45 seconds into track 2 – Adagio by Domenico Laboccetta; the lead player seems to be trying to move the tempo forward – nothing wrong with that – except that in this instance his insistence on such a movement results in wayward ensemble and more pushing accents in the upper line destroying the implicit lyrical flow.

Much of the music that is performed here was written, as explained in the liner-notes, for teaching purposes. As such it has an appealing easy lyricism but it does depend heavily on the singing quality of the melodic line with the other parts providing essentially simple accompaniments. The 19th century works are pleasant without being particularly memorable although I suspect that in more sensitive hands they would make a greater impact. The two Baroque sonatas both make more of the duetting possibilities of the instruments. I enjoyed reading in the liner-notes of composer Michel Corrette’s predilection for plagiarism including a Laudate Dominum which is apparently a straight lift of Vivaldi’s Spring with words added! The Corrette work here, Le Phénix, is of real interest because it appears to be the first original published work for four cellos. That aside I hear none of the anticipations of Classicism claimed for it in the liner-notes. In fact, far from it, this sounds like an archetypal Baroque sonata/concerto and very enjoyable as such. Performance-wise it sits in a very safe middle ground but I would have to say I feel tempi suffer from a certain leaden four-squareness in the outer movements. Musically the highlight is the central Adagio but again the playing does not maximise the simple purity of the writing.

The same applies for much of the rest of the disc, both music and performances failing to take wing. Part of this is due to the moderate to slow tempi of the bulk of the programme which gives it a certain ‘easy-listening’ character. The penultimate track - a Malagueña - injects a little Ritual Fire Dance-like energy but again with a sense of the various elements of the groups not quite pulling as one. The CD is completed by one of my bug-bears - a “bonus” track. Does this mean copies of this CD exist without this track? – no, of course not, so therefore it is not a bonus. In this situation it is simply because this is an arrangement not an original work.

I have deliberately left one of the extraordinary elements of this disc until late in the review because I did not realise it myself on first or indeed any listening. The instruments used in the recording consist of three Stradivari and one Gagliano. Given that many consider Stradivarius’ perfection of the ‘standard’ cello more significant than his work on violin and that there are only just over sixty Strad cellos in existence, gathering 5% of the total in one place for one recording is remarkable. But I would have to say I had no inkling at all of the quality of the instruments on display on this disc. A baffling conclusion to an ultimately disappointing disc.

Nick Barnard