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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Concerto No. 1, for cello and orchestra (H 196) [30:40]
Sonata da Camera, for cello and orchestra (H 283) [30:05]
Concerto No. 2, for cello and orchestra (H 304) [39:10]
Concertino, for cello, winds, percussion and piano (H 143) [14:05]
Petr Nouzovský (cello)
Pilsen Philharmonic/Tomáš Brauner
rec. 2014, Czech Radio Pilsen, Czech Republic
MDG 6012041-2 [2 CDs: 114:26]

Bohuslav Martinů composed three works for cello and full orchestra: the two concertos and the Sonata da Camera. There is also the Concertino, for cello, winds, percussion and piano. This offering from MDG appears to be the only way currently to acquire Martinů’s four major cello works in one set. None of the four are regularly played in concert, nor have they appeared frequently on record. Yet, all are of substantial, if not exceptional quality.

When Martinů began writing the First Cello Concerto in 1930, he was under the spell of the concerto grosso form as fashioned by Handel and Corelli. He scored it for a chamber-sized ensemble but, not satisfied, made a version for full orchestra eight years after the 1931 premiere. In 1955 he made further revisions, rewriting some of the cello parts and changing the orchestration so that the soloist could be heard more clearly.

The Allegro moderato first movement’s main theme is one of those chipper, optimistic creations that Martinů seemed to be able to write at will. The music is mostly colorful and bright throughout this movement, including in the lyrical alternate theme, but an extended passage in the latter half that sounds almost like short cello cadenzas interleaved with emphatic orchestral statements brings on a somewhat somber mood for a time before the music returns to its brighter opening material for the close. Wistful might describe the character of the second movement, but its main theme is quite lovely and the mostly restrained scoring very imaginative. The finale is playful and brilliant, but also bristling with energy except for a reflective middle section.

The Second Concerto is longer than the First (by nearly nine minutes here) and has a gentler veneer, its lyricism more songful, its emotional pitch warmer. Having fled the Nazis, Martinů wrote the work in New York City beginning in late December and continuing straight through the Christmas holiday season of 1944. It’s reasonable to surmise that the Yuletide spirit seized his, not only inspiring a more mellow expressive manner but also a more intimate one. The first two movements are lengthy, around thirteen or fourteen minutes here, and mainly feature moderate to slow tempos. The finale breaks through the sense of restraint with a vigorous opening and ecstatic mood. Overall, the movement is lively and playful, apart from the lengthy cadenza (more about this later).

The 1943 Sonata da camera (H 283, not H 238 as given on the back cover and in the album booklet) and the 1924 Concertino for cello, winds, percussion and piano are anything but inconsequential fillers. The former work, about a half hour in length, is cast in three movements and can be viewed as a concerto for cello and chamber orchestra. The Concertino has more than a hint of Stravinsky in it. The work consists of a single movement and lasts fourteen minutes. It is light and extroverted, the composer’s characteristic optimism and mischievous spirit evident throughout much of the work.

One can observe that all four works are mostly dominated by brighter, optimistic moods. Despite turbulence in his life, Martinů tended to express a mostly sunny or at least hopeful view of life, unlike so many of his contemporaries. In the end, these four works should appeal to cello enthusiasts and those with an interest in off-the-beaten-track 20th century fare of an accessible nature.

As for the performances… One might get the sense that Czech cellist Petr Nouzovský’s tempo choices are a bit on the expansive side, especially when comparing his timings with those of other performances. Indeed, cellist Rafael Wallfisch, for example, is four minutes faster in the First Concerto and three in the Second in his Chandos accounts of these works. But Nouzovský isn’t quite as slow as those comparisons might suggest: in the Second the cadenza he plays in the finale is twice as long as that played by Wallfisch, amounting to a two minute-plus difference. I compared the two versions and either Wallfisch made a cut or Nouzovský inserted additions or was playing a different, extended version.

At any rate, Nouzovský is never excessive in his somewhat more deliberate way with the concertos and his interpretive instincts are totally convincing. His phrasing of lyrical music shows great feeling and sensitivity, and he imparts vitality and color to the faster music. What is perhaps an issue here, though, is his big tone: you always hear him clearly through competing orchestral lines, but is that due to the miking by the engineers? It seems that is part of it at least, but Nouzovsky also appears to play with a very muscular and healthy tone which serves these works well. Overall then, it’s actually not a flaw but maybe an asset instead.

As for the Sonata da camera and Concertino Nouzovský appears to be more centrist in his pacing and he plays with the same kind of scrupulous musicianship as in the concertos. In all four compositions the Pilsen Philharmonic, under the knowing leadership of Tomáš Brauner, play with spirit and accuracy, and a thorough understanding of the music of Martinů. Additional players performing in the Sonata da camera are not specified in the album information, but are presumably members of the Pilsen Philharmonic. The sound reproduction by MDG is vivid but, as mentioned above, favors the soloist somewhat.

As far as the recorded competition in these four works goes, it is thin. I’ve already mentioned Wallfisch and he is the chief alternative, not least because he has both concertos and the Concertino on one disc, and is splendidly abetted by Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic. In the end, if you’re looking for all four of these Martinů cello works in one package, this MDG set clearly is the way to get well played and thoroughly satisfying accounts. Moreover, one might favor the longer cadenza Nouzovský plays in the Second, which I suspect is the complete or original version. Wallfisch might have a slight edge in the three works on his disc, owing mainly to the marginally better performances by the orchestra. Martinů mavens should not hesitate to acquire both the Nouzovský and Wallfisch.

Robert Cummings

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