Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33 (1872) [19:25]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo theme in A, Op.33 (1876) [18:44]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Cello Sonata in A minor, Op.36 (1883) [29:05]
Josef Chuchro (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Alois Klima
Josef HŠla (piano)
rec. 1950s, Prague

Once again Forgotten Records has chosen to mine the less-encountered wing of Supraphon’s output from the 1950s. They’ve taken an LP that paired the Saint-SaŽns Cello Concerto No.1 with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and so-much-so-ordinary one might think today. In point of fact the protagonists are what make this a singularly interesting affair. Josef Chuchro is best remembered today as the cellist in Josef Suk’s trio, along with pianist Jan Panenka. His concerto opportunities, on disc at least, were far more limited and circumscribed than his forays into the chamber literature. The conductor is Alois Klima (1905-80), one of Czechoslovakia’s more under-sung podium masters, but a musician of characterful intelligence.

The two certainly make a sympathetic pairing in the Saint-SaŽns. One of the pleasures of this disc is its sheer sense of musicality, the deft rubati and the unshowy dignity of the performance. The Czech Philharmonic is on fine form for Chuchro (1931-2009) who was a soloist with them for a number of years and for Klima, who encourages characterful contributions from the famed Czech winds. The tempos are fine, and the wit in the central Allegretto con moto section unarguable – savour the winds here, in particular. Chuchro shows few if any technical weaknesses and has an attractive tone throughout. If you seek a greater quotient of charisma and self-confident projection, it’s undeniable that other players of the time, more specifically soloistically-inclined, will offer it. To cite two, Starker and Dorati with the LSO offer a more intense reading, whilst Zara Nelsova with Boult – on a splendid Decca Masters box – offer a similarly powerful reading. Chuchro is at his very best in the Tchaikovsky – in its then familiar bowdlerised version – when playing the slower variations. Here his sense of chamber collaborative thoughtfulness, and his refined elegance of tone, are most evident. His playing of the penultimate movement, the lovely Andante, is particularly vivid but in a selfless and introspective way.
The final piece offers examples of that chamber spirit in a recording of Grieg’s outsize Sonata, with pianist Josef HŠla. By coincidence I’ve just been re-listening to the first ever recording of this sonata, made by Felix Salmond and Simeon Rumshisky in New York in the 1920s. Chuchro has a similarly noble and refined persona and in HŠla has a vibrant and communicative colleague, one of the best such in his country. The Supraphon recording is not the most subtle but it is immediate and allows one to hear the sparring and interplay between the two unimpeded. It’s a more-than-useful appendix to the orchestrally-accompanied examples of Chuchro’s art, and admirers of the cellist will welcome its restoration in this excellently transferred disc.

Jonathan Woolf