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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra [25:50]
Ballade for Cello and Chamber Orchestra [15:47]
Xavier DAYER (b.1972)
Lignes d’Est [16:22]
Estelle Revaz (cello)
Geneva Chamber Orchestra/Arie van Beek
rec. 9-11 July 2020, Studio Ansermet, Geneva, Switzerland
SOLO MUSICA SM345 [58:04]

Having devoted much of my academic life to researching the life and music of the Swiss composer Frank Martin, it ought to distress me more than it does that so little of his music ever appears on commercial recordings. Choirmasters justifiably swoon over the Mass; which is not only an absolutely divine work, but one which is wholly untypical of Martin. His real musical voice is revealed in his works for solo instrument and orchestra (concertos) or solo instrument and smaller accompanying forces (which he called “Ballades”). And here is the problem: he spent so much time developing and perfecting that voice, that by the time he was ready to commit works for public scrutiny, he had little more to add, and a common accusation levelled against his music is that it all sounds very samey. Whether writing for a solo saxophone, flute, harpsichord, piano, violin or cello, the musical language is not so much immediately identifiable, as pretty much the same. This is not to belittle the extraordinary quality of his writing (most critics who encounter a Martin work for the first time enthuse about it and wonder why it is not better known), but merely to say that he was so content with the voice he eventually found that he saw no reason to change it.

Currently there are three other recordings of the Cello Concerto in the catalogue, so this new one from the Swiss cellist Estelle Revaz is by no means entering into a crowded market. Composed in 1965 for Pierre Fournier, the Concerto is a deeply felt and intense work, Those qualities are only enhanced by a performance which, as Revaz observes in a short note in the booklet, was not unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic; “music”, she writes, “came out the winner” - you bet it did! The opening cello solo exudes a sense of yearning and solitariness not dissimilar to something Vaughan Williams might have written, and this is only reinforced by the almost desolate orchestral writing which leads up from this lyrical passage. Tension quickly ratchets up through some typically Martin hung dissonances, and a slightly playful feel comes over the music courtesy of a flute solo. But playfulness was never a part of Martin’s musical persona, and there is an undercurrent of angst which never really disappears throughout the nervous energy of the movement. All the time the cello is there, sometimes taking the lead, but as often as not adding its individual commentary on what is going on at the orchestral forefront. The second movement has an austere feel at the start, created by the sequences of three chords announced by the winds and then given a warmer glow by the strings and piano. The cello brings an appealing, pleading line above gently pulsating chords (anyone who knows Martin’s great oratorio Golgotha will recognise this), and the movement continues to combine the two basic ideas in a forlorn and soulful manner, while at the same time building up the tension until a trombone manages to let out the head of steam which has built up, and the cello ruminates over the memory of what has gone before. Martin’s direction for the final movement is that it should be “wild and harsh”, and it certainly lives up to that in this high-octane performance from the Geneva Chamber Orchestra under Arie van Beek, but only after the piano has set up a kind of jazz-infused rhythmic ostinato which pulsates along, with the cello eventually joining in, suddenly breaking off for a moment of calm reflection, before the full forces are unleashed. The ending, a major chord strummed out pizzicato by the cello, is difficult to bring off effectively after all that has gone before, but Revaz does it magnificently, making this a performance to be reckoned with

The Ballade was written in 1949, shortly after Martin’s permanent move from Switzerland to the Netherlands. He wrote it with simultaneous versions for cello and piano, and cello and chamber orchestra, and like his other Ballades (of which there are eight), it is very much in the manner of an eloquent and highly articulate solo for the cello with textural body provided by the accompaniment. The detail and intricacy of the orchestral writing is far more than a mere accompaniment to the cello’s story-line, and at times the two become so closely interwoven, that it takes on an almost concertante style; indeed, in the short extract from Martin’s own writings about the piece given in the booklet, the composer suggests that he thought of calling it a “Concertino”. But Ballade it is, for as with the other works with the same title (the famous ones being for flute, saxophone and trombone), it is much more in the nature of a narrative expounded by the solo instrument, than an abstract musical work. In this version, the oboe takes a prominent role, and its haunting tones are particularly vividly exposed here against the often Messiaenic sounds from the muted strings. Van Beek paces the work perfectly, squeezing every last drop of pathos from the often pained climaxes, and working through Martin’s characteristically long-drawn-out approaches to climaxes with infinite patience. Revaz is by turns introspective, passionate and skittish, and it all works extraordinarily well, especially given the fine quality of the recorded sound.

A third work is linked to the others by virtue of it being by a Swiss composer who, although born just two years before Martin’s death, clearly had much admiration for his older compatriot. Xavier Dayer composed his Lignes d’Est (“Vanishing Lines to the East”) in 2020 for Estelle Revaz and the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, and while I find the brief comments about the work in the booklet more tantalising than illuminating, there is a clear sense that Dayer is experimenting with various musical styles in a kind of passage of discovery in search of an individual voice. Seemingly disparate ideas are found in the orchestra, but the cello glides easily over them all, providing not just a coherent train of thought, but a soothing spirit.

These are very fine performances indeed, and I would urge anyone with an interest in music which does not so much challenge as probe and question, to seek this out.

Marc Rochester

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