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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Sonata No 1, H277 (1939) [17:45]
Cello Sonata No 2, H286 (1941) [19:53]
Cello Sonata No 3, H340 (1952) [21:05]
Seven Arabesques, H201 (1931) [19:45]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
John York (piano)
rec. December 2017 and April 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI8105 [74:38]

The three sonatas are a popular choice for cellists and I’ve auditioned a fair few. Stephen Isserlis’ second cycle (review) with Olli Mustonen on BIS was fast and furious, the Watkins Brothers on Chandos are what I termed tough and abrasive (review), Mattia Zappa and Massimiliano Mainolfi on Claves (review) are defiant but their recorded sound is unhelpfully glacial, whilst Petr Nouzovský and Gérard Wyss on Arco Diva (review) are attractively reserved. Now here are Raphael Wallfisch and John York in the latest in a fine sequence of sonata discs on Nimbus, having already recorded sonatas by Dohnányi, Kodály, Zemlinsky, Korngold and Goldmark. How do they rate in Martinů?

They rate warmly, to be blunt. Wallfisch phrases with richness and York is a most attentive partner and they tend to avoid extremes of tempo and declamation, such as can prove somewhat wearying in other hands – Isserlis and Mustonen, for example. Taking a kind of Golden Mean works well in these sonatas yet when one listens to Starker and Firkušný one feels a deeper and more visceral, lively sense of music-making, and Starker’s tonal qualities bring more core of the note leanness than Wallfisch’s. I find this consistently in the First Sonata, where the older pairing’s characterisation is both more athletic and, when required, in the slow movement, catches the heart more vitally. This isn’t so much a matter of tempi as of sculpting of musical detail.

The one movement in the recording that strikes me as somewhat fast is the opening of the Second Sonata, though Wallfisch and York manage to prove engaging interpreters and avoid any sense of syntactical gabble. Rather, they are astute with rubati where the Julietta motto theme is well brought out, but not needlessly paraded, and they prove correspondingly to relax in the central slow movement. In the Third Sonata the sprung rhythms are perhaps better realised by Firkušný and Starker whose interpretation of an initial Poco andante is more athletic than Wallfisch and York. This is certainly better though than the frenetic motoric approach of Isserlis and Mustonen. The slow movement is again beautifully textured but in the finale the music’s sheer vitality is better conveyed by a slightly more pressing tempo. I will say that Wallfisch and York find the music’s humour; not all duos manage that.

Some discs leave it there, with just the sonatas, but Nimbus has added a welcome and under-recorded collection of Seven Arabesques composed in 1931. These are studies in rhythm, syncopation and character. The third is the most obviously dissonant, with lashings of colour, whilst the fourth is the most jazz-influenced and the fifth the most expressive. They are excellently played here.

Recommendations? It’s clear that Starker-Firkušný represents the most idiomatic approach and I have long harboured admiration for the famous Supraphon recording with Josef Chuchro and Josef Hála, though Chuchro is a more reserved performer than some others mentioned earlier. Wallfisch and York represent a warmly expressive view of the sonatas, commendable but perhaps lacking the last ounce in rhythmic brio.

Jonathan Woolf

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