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Janos Starker: In Memoriam
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Concerto No.1 H.196 (1955 version - see review) [26:09]
Janos Starker (cello)
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Nelson
rec. live, Prague, 19 March 1990 (stereo)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Concerto in E minor Op.58 (1935) [29:37]
Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra Op.12 (1903-4) [22:22]
Janos Starker (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Süsskind
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 14-17 July 1956 (mono)
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD250304 [77:56]

A short note about the CD format. Despite the label 'Genuine Stereo Lab' on the booklet, two of these recordings, those from 1956, must be from mono masters and do definitely sound like mono. Nowhere in the liner or booklet is this stated explicitly one way or the other. No matter. Janos Starker (1924-2013) was a great cellist: he was on a level with the likes of Rostropovich, Casals and Fournier. His beautiful sound is well captured in all of these works. Whilst each piece can be found elsewhere in the catalogue in equally good performances (some also by Starker), few can match his playing here. On those grounds alone this is an essential purchase providing the music appeals. These recordings catch him at two widely spaced points in his extraordinarily long playing career. There is no sign of any decline in skill between the Martinů concerto from 1990 and the 1956 Prokofiev and Dohnányi performances, which show just what made everyone so excited about the younger Starker. The amazingly rich and singing tone as well as the seemingly unlimited technical skill are displayed in full.

The Cello Concerto No.1 is one of those rare pieces by Martinů that underwent revision. It was composed in 1930 whilst on vacation in Polička and completed later that year back in Paris. It was scored for small orchestra and piano and pre-figured his interest in the baroque concerto grosso. A revision in 1939 saw him re-score it for a larger orchestra with more obviously symphonic proportions. In 1955, after hearing it in a radio broadcast, he wrote to his friend Miloš Šafránek noting how shocked he was by his poor earlier orchestration. He eliminated the piano and tuba from the score and generally enriched the sound to what we have here. He even had the great cellist Pierre Fournier, a champion of his music for cello, revise the cadenza in the finale. The end result is a gorgeous masterpiece which only gets better on repeated hearing. The performance here is predictably magnificent with Starker ably supported by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. It should be noted that, amongst many other recordings, that by Angelica May with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Vaclav Neumann is the equal of this present performance and arguably has more rhythmically vital orchestral playing. Owning both is the way to go because the May-Neumann performance is coupled with Martinů's Second Cello Concerto, an equally superb piece.

Starker's couplings here both stem from a highly productive three day recording session at the Kingsway Hall in July 1956 when he worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the ever-reliable Walter Süsskind. The resulting two LPs came out in 1957 and 1958, coupling the Prokofiev with Milhaud's first Cello Concerto and then the Dohnányi with Kodaly's great unaccompanied Sonata for Cello Op.8, one of Starker's regular repertoire pieces. Reviewers at the time were full of praise for the mono LPs, the EMG Monthly Letter giving both its full 'two star' accolade - what moderate times those were. As noted above, there is no audible stereo spread in these present transfers and thus no reason to assume there were experimental stereo recordings in the vaults for Praga to re-master. The orchestral sound in both is rather coarse in tuttis, something that was noted about the original LP issues, but not at all bad for recordings close to sixty years old. Like the Martinů Cello Concerto, the Prokofiev concerto was subject to major revision and was later published as the considerably better known Sinfonia Concertante Op.125. Prokofiev wrote the present piece in 1933. It had an unlucky premiere in 1938 and he revised it for a 1940 performance. It was not until he heard the great Mstislav Rostropovich play it in 1947 that it gained the performance quality it deserved. Oddly, however, the composer was still not satisfied and radically re-worked the piece as a much longer, and very different, Sinfonia Concertante for Rostropovich who gave the first performance in 1952. The result of all this has been the subsequent neglect of the earlier effort. Listening to this wonderful performance by Starker one wonders why Prokofiev felt compelled to revise it. It sounds positively inspired and anything but the piece with 'something missing' as Prokofiev's well-meaning friend Miaskovsky said. It sounds more like, as one critic put it, 'one of the most accomplished cello concertos ever written'. The Dohnányi Konzertstück was a new piece to me and I can only say it is most enjoyable but it is inevitably overshadowed by the other two works.

Dave Billinge



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