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Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Cello Concerto (1940) [23:50]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra Op. 125 [36:16]
Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928) 
Cello Concerto No.1, Op.41 (1968) [14:19]
Janos Starker (cello)
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Andreas von Lukacsy (Hindemith)
SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra/Ernest Bour (Prokofiev),
Herbert Blomstedt (Rautavaara)
rec. Funkstudio, Stuttgart, 1971 (1); Hans-Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, 1975

Janos Starker (1924-2013) was one of the foremost cellists of the twentieth century. Hungarian by birth he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, his home city. In his early years he had a spell as an orchestral player but in 1958, four years after he had emigrated to the United States, he embarked on a solo career. Side by side with his successful concertising he took a job teaching at Indiana University, where he was renowned amongst his students for being a fierce taskmaster and uncompromising perfectionist. He remained in this post for the remainder of his life. His studio roster was prolific, and it is amazing that he recorded several cycles of the Bach Cello Suites. He was also a committed chamber musician and, as further evidence of his holistic approach to music, he promoted and premiered the music of contemporary composers. With this disc we meet him interpreting three twentieth century cello concertos.

The first composition following Hindemith’s relocation to the USA was the Cello Concerto of 1940. It was written for the Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who premiered it in 1941 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitsky. It is regrettable that no commercial recording was made of the work with Piatigorsky and the composer; apparently contractual obligations to different companies precluded this. However, a radio broadcast exists from 15 December 1943, issued for the first time in a superb box set ‘The Art of Gregor Piatigorsky’ from West Hill Radio Archives (WHRA-6032). In terrific sound for its age and provenance, it gives one an idea of that first performance. With tremendous energy and drive, it is well-worth seeking out.

The Hindemith Concerto was held in high regard by Starker, who hailed it as ‘the best cello concerto of the twentieth century: the best constructed, with superb musical material, fabulously orchestrated …’ Apart from a live recording from the 1957-8 Chicago Symphony Orchestra season under Fritz Reiner, issued privately on LP, with very limited circulation, the cellist only took the concerto into the recording studio once and that was in 1994 for RCA. The studio/radio recording we have here from 1971, issued for the first time, is a welcome addition to the Starker discography.

Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra Op. 125 is a reworking of the Op.58 Cello concerto which was composed between 1933-38. In its new form, it was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who assisted the composer with the refashioning. The premiere took place on 18 February 1952 with Sviatoslav Richter conducting. It is a work on a large-scale. Whilst this Op.125 is new to the Starker discography, he did make a studio recording of the rarely heard Op. 58 in 1956 with the Philharmonia and Walter Süsskind. This recording has had several incarnations on LP, and in the minds of some has acquired ‘classic’ status. Unfortunately, I have never heard it.

Another discographical first is a performance from February 1975 of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cello Concerto No.1, Op.41. Composed in 1968, this three movement work is concise in its thematic material. The orchestration sounds sparse for much of the time, yet the cello is kept busy throughout. The beautiful Largo middle movement is lyrical and elegiac. The work ends with an energetic Vivace.

In all three works, the cellist commands an impressive and flawless technique. Utilising a fairly tight and rapid vibrato, he produces a lean tone, as was his wont, yet with no vestige of tension. Another endearing quality is his smooth, even bow. In Starker’s hands, each concerto is underpinned by rhythmic precision and exactitude. Intonation is at all times immaculate, and his playing manifests all the attributes of impeccable, intelligent musicianship.

The sound-picture throughout is first class, and in each concerto the balance achieved between soloist and orchestra couldn’t be bettered. Annotations in German and English provide adequate background. My thanks to Hänssler for having done a sterling job in re-mastering these SWR tapes. This is yet another treasure from their archive.

Stephen Greenbank