Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102 [15:25]
Adagio und Allegro, Op. 70 [8:53]
Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 [10:30]
Märchenbilder, Op. 113 [15:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite no. 3 for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1009, arr. Schumann for cello and piano [19:37]
Martin Ostertag (cello), Kalle Randalu (piano) (members of Ensemble Villa Musica)
rec. 17-19 December 2009 (Schumann); 21 December 2010 (Bach), Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster. DDD

It was while Schumann was studying the piano with Frederich Wieke that he injured his right hand, making a career as a pianist impossible. The instrument that he took up at that stage was the cello. That experience stood him in good stead when writing the Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129, and the works on this disc. These comprise the Fünf Stücke im Volkston, the cello versions of the Adagio and Allegro and the Fantasiestücke, and an arrangement for cello of the Märchenbilder, which was originally written for viola. One of Schumann’s arrangements of the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello, for which he provided a piano accompaniment, rounds off the disc.

Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Five pieces in folk style) is Schumann’s sole surviving composition for cello and piano. The other works on this disc are either the cello versions of works which could be played on several instruments, or, in the case of the Märchenbilder, an arrangement by Martin Ostertag.) Ostertag and Randalu take a fairly gentle approach to the first movement; the interplay is sensitive, but I felt that they could have adopted a more earthy style. The middle movements display Ostertag’s fine legato playing, with smooth chords. There is some fine dynamic shaping, particularly in the minor episode of the second movement. The last movement is played more alla rustica, which suits the character of the music. The Adagio and Allegro begins in similar fashion, with attractive lyrical playing from Ostertag; the Allegro is more assertive with the fast bowing precisely done.

The opening of the Fantasiestücke (Fantasy pieces) is taken at quite a deliberate tempo. The dynamic shaping is beautifully carried off, but the piece could use a little more fantasy. The middle movement is more animated; Randalu’s accompaniment has an attractive silvery tone. The finale is played with vigor and sensitivity, and Ostertag leans on the accents to give some extra character.

The Märchenbilder had been arranged for cello in the nineteenth century by the cello virtuosi Piatti and Hausmann, but the arrangement here is by Martin Ostertag.

The performance features delicate interplay between the duo partners, with the phrases being carefully shaped. Ostertag’s double-stopping in the second movement has a martial character. These pieces all display fine chamber music playing, with Randalu providing discreet support throughout.

Rostropovich made a celebrated recording of the Fünf Stücke im Volkston in 1968, with Benjamin Britten. Rostropovich gives his usual larger than life performance, in notably more vigorous style than Ostertag. However Rostropovich/Britten take almost three minutes longer overall, the difference being mostly in the third movement, which certainly lives up to its marking of Nicht schnell. Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of the Fantasiestücke with Daniel Barenboim finds her at her most expressive, and her reading has the freedom and fantasy that I felt a little lacking from the present performance. However she is more backwards in the balance than Ostertag, and Barenboim’s accompaniment is on the narcissistic side when set beside Randalu’s subtle contribution.

The disc concludes with Schumann’s arrangement for cello and piano of J.S. Bach’s Suite no. 3 for unaccompanied cello. Schumann’s piano part is unobtrusive, mainly reinforcing the cello and not competing with it. This arrangement is obviously a relic of a previous era in performance practice, when it was felt necessary to adapt Baroque music to contemporary tastes, and is interesting for that reason. Ostertag shows that he is a fine Bach player; he keeps his bow light for the most part, and his phrasing is not too legato.

MDG has a philosophy of producing recordings in the acoustics of specially chosen concert halls, without the use of reverberation, filters or limiters. The recording certainly has a natural balance, and an attractive warmth that does not sound at all artificial.

Guy Aron

This disc is a useful collection of Schumann’s chamber music for cello, and Ostertag and Randalu offer performances that are sensitive and unaffected.