Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 [18:36] Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Ballade for Cello and Small Orchestra [17:15] Édouard LALO (1823-1892) Cello Concerto in D minor [25:42]
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Gießen Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Hofstetter
rec. Gießen Municipal Theatre on 6 May 2014 (Saint-Saëns) and 16 June 2015 (Lalo, Martin) OEHMS CLASSICS OC1838 [61:36]
I’m a bit of a sucker for the music of Frank Martin. There’s something which draws me to it that I can’t put my finger on, and every listening experience is like the perfect blind date – it all goes swimmingly, but I can’t remember a thing afterwards. Except if it’s the Petite Symphonie Concertante, which I can actually hum bits of - but then it has to be memorable, doesn’t it - Leopold Stokowski recorded it, after all. As for the rest, well, I can recall the names of several works, but that’s about it. While CDs devoted entirely to Martin’s music have multiplied over the years, he’s more often than not filler material on collections linked to his mid-20th century style, or to his French-Swiss nationality. The latter is the case with the current review disc, where his is the intermission piece between two late-Romantic French cello concertos.
Martin’s 1949 Ballade for cello and small orchestra also exists in a version for piano accompaniment. In either case, the cellist takes on most of the load. The cello begins the work sombrely but lyrically, double-stopping giving the music a dense texture, which then lightens and hastens with increasing orchestral interplay heading towards an implied climax, but this subsides and the work closes with the cello in charge again, more gently melancholic than it began. Hearing it again, I realise that I’m more intellectually than emotionally engaged, Martin’s free use of form and tonality possibly explaining my inability to fully register his art. While in its presence, however, I’m captivated by its inventiveness, power and sophistication, with a constant curiosity about where the musical argument is taking me. I’m not alone, by the way - look here.
If you think all of this heralds a great performance of the Ballade, I’ll have to disappoint you. It’s good to see it programmed and recorded - and to give me an opportunity to mount my Frank Martin soapbox - but if you want to hear this work at its best, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Wen-Sinn Yang is a fine cellist, and does an admirable job promoting the lesser-known cello repertoire, but as a persuasive performance of the Ballade, this is hardly ideal. He plays his part well enough, but the work as a whole simply doesn’t gel. The Gießen Philharmonic accompanies him with verve, but fairly approximate ensemble and intonation. It’s a single-take live performance with, mercifully, no applause afterwards - unlike the concertos on the disc - I expect because the work’s quiet ending and unfamiliarity to the audience let the recording team wind it down gently during the “is it over yet?” silence that followed.
I played Christian Poltéra’s piano-accompanied version immediately after (review), and whether it was just the finer performance, I’m not sure, but I believe this variation of the work provides the tauter and more potent listening experience. Although I’ve not heard it, Peter Dixon’s performance on Chandos, with Matthias Bamert conducting the LPO, is an orchestral version that has been well reviewed on this site.
Moving on to the Saint-Saëns and Lalo cello concertos, Yang’s playing in both is fluent, accomplished and vibrant. I can imagine his tone being better caught in more controlled circumstances, but it’s reassuringly secure and provides a strong and stable thread through the musical landscapes these works explore. His corporate partner, the Gießen Philharmonic, is house orchestra of the Gießen Municipal Theatre, giving concerts in its own right, and accompanying the theatre’s productions. It certainly has that punching-above-its-weight, pit orchestra sound, without the greatest of finesse or tonal sheen, trying to make up, I suspect, for a lack of numbers, particularly in the strings. Under musical director Michael Hofstetter, its support for Yang I would best describe as ‘energetic’, which isn’t meant disparagingly – there’s an attractive brio to these performances that makes for enjoyable listening. Would you, though, want to hear them more than once, or in preference to any of the numerous alternatives?
The Saint-Saëns concerto is the more popular piece; this site lists numerous recordings among them Moser/Hänssler, Wispelwey/Channel, Mørk/Chandos and Rostropovich/EMI. You’ll find Lalo reviewed here and here, and if you want both concertos together, there’s the venerable André Navarra recording with Charles Munch and the Lamoureux Orchestra, reviewed here.
One of Oehms’ strong suits in my experience has been its sound quality, and this CD is no exception. The 700-seat Gießen Municipal Theatre is roughly one-third to one-half the capacity of a typical concert hall, and that’s the way it sounds, with moderate reverberation and an increased sense of the surrounding surfaces. Its warm ambience without boominess makes it an attractive recording venue for the works on this CD, and I’d be bold enough to say it puts the orchestra in its best light. Oehms capture proceedings as well as could be imagined, but with one small gripe - they should indicate these are live performances. For those familiar with Oehms, it appears concert recordings are their stock-in-trade, but newcomers may feel let down if it’s not what they’re expecting.
In summing up, I can’t help but reflect on the economics of this release, since it contains mostly mainstream works recorded at live performances by a provincial orchestra with a soloist only just, I would suggest, of the front rank. It’s not a cheap production, in digipak style, with full cover artwork and attached 15-page booklet in German and English. Wen-Sinn Yang gets top billing on the cover, and sales to his followers, together with memento sales in the Gießen area, might well pay this CD’s way. It’s intriguing to contemplate, however, what wider prospects were envisaged for it.