Edmund Kurtz (cello)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Sonata, Op 119 (1950) [24:48]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65 (1845-47) [22:54]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Sonata for solo cello, Op 8 (1915) [28:41]
Artur Balsam (piano)
rec. c. 1949-1950
DOREMI DHR-8109 [76:30]
Edmund Kurtz (1908-2004) was born in St Petersburg but moved to Germany in the Revolutionary year of 1917 where he studied with Julius Klengel, one of the greatest players of the day. His debut came in the mid-20s after which he pursued a soloistic career until orchestral work took over. Maintaining a career as a solo cellist at the time was exceptionally difficult, other than for the best-known players, and after he emigrated to America he was first cello of the Chicago Symphony. Perhaps his most famous recording was the 1945 broadcast with Toscanini and the NBC of the Dvořák Concerto. But he did make studio discs, too, notably the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with William Kapell. Milhaud dedicated his Cello Concerto No 2 to Kurtz and he gave the first American performance of the Khachaturian Concerto under Koussevitzky.
Doremi gives a minimum of discographical information about these recordings, merely noting that the three sonatas were recorded in the years 1949-50 (the Prokofiev could hardly have been recorded in 1949, as it wasn’t premičred until the following year) but not identifying record labels or catalogue numbers. The Prokofiev was coupled with the Kodály on American Columbia ML4867 released in – I believe – 1953 whilst the Chopin was on a 78 set RCA Victor 12-0993-5, which was then transferred onto vinyl as LM19. For the Chopin Kurtz had domestic competition in the shape of Piatigorsky and Ralph Berkowitz, though there were a number of other competitors that might have served to blunt the edge of the Kurtz-Balsam recording. As for the Prokofiev, once again one finds the Piatigorsky-Berkowicz team. In the Kodály there was less direct competition, though János Starker had made his first recording of it for the small Pacific label, later transferring to Nixa LP.
Kurtz’s playing is marked by a natural dignity of expression. The recording quality of the Prokofiev even seems to magnify and intensity his sonorous tone production and despite the rather congested mono sound elements such as the first movement pizzicati register well. This multi-faceted work responds best to quicksilver expressive responses but despite a certain static quality to his playing, Kurtz, and Balsam, who is in excellent form in this work, manage to convey just the right qualities. Their speed in the Moderato second movement is considerably faster than Piatigorsky and Berkowitz and this imparts a more giocoso feel. Tellingly, the world premičre, which has been preserved and which was given by Rostropovich and Richter in the presence of the composer, is at its zestiest in the finale which they drive through in seven minutes flat, outstripping both the émigré Russian cellists in their American recordings.
Kurtz’s instinct for elegant refinement is perhaps best heard in the Chopin Sonata though because of the boxy sonics the full spectrum of his sound can’t really be heard. A slight element of understatement exists in the slow movement though he phrases with great perception and his rapport with Balsam can’t be faulted. Similarly, the finale is deftly articulated but not – thankfully – subjected to any over-scaled theatrics. The Kodály shows Kurtz’s technique operating at a high level. The rather dry acoustic and limited timbral nature of the recording does, inevitably, limit pleasure to some degree but Kurtz’s instincts for tempo and for expressive density are all very much in his favour. Certainly, if you prefer a more sinewy, more tensile approach Starker’s somewhat later 1957 EMI is a classic statement of the work where the Hungarian takes the slow movement at a much more flowing tempo without loss of intensity.
The disc’s annotations and transfers are acceptable so if you want to sample Kurtz the chamber player you will find that even his physiognomy, as presented in the booklet picture, resembles that of his fellow Russian, Piatigorsky.