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Martinu: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 & 3 / Paul Watkins, Huw Watkins

Martinu / Watkins / Watkins
Release Date: 07/27/2010 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 10602   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Huw WatkinsPaul Watkins
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MARTIN? Cello Sonatas Nos. 1–3. Variations on a Slovak Theme. Variations on a Theme by Rossini Paul Watkins (vc); Huw Watkins (pn) CHANDOS 10602 (70:15)

This generously filled CD is a complete success. Most recordings of Martin?’s cello sonatas contain only the three sonatas; here we have the added bonus of his two delightful sets of variations. I find all five compositions rewarding in every way: rhythmically, melodically, emotionally, in their formal structure, and as exemplary writing for the two Read more instruments. The music is not unknown, but hasn’t yet been taken up by the world’s most famous cellists and is still underappreciated. The performances are superb. I particularly admire Paul Watkins’s unforced cello sound, the fluency and shapeliness of Huw Watkins’s piano playing, and the give and take of their ensemble.

The charge of facile note spinning sometimes justifiably leveled at Martin? doesn’t apply to the three cello sonatas, which are among his best, most communicative chamber works. Each comes from a different stage of his exile from Czechoslavakia. The first was premiered by Pierre Fournier and Rudolf Firkušný in Paris in 1939 and is the most angular sounding, severe at times, with neobaroque underpinnings, and a fiery finale. (Firkušný’s recording of the three sonatas with János Starker is a good one, though Paul Watkins achieves more variety of sound than Starker.) The second was written in 1941 in New York and is a successful attempt at composing in a more accessible style. Its strength and rhythmic irregularities are similar to the first sonata’s but its textures are less busy and the slow movement speaks simply and powerfully. The third sonata, from late in Martin?’s life, is a sparkling, joyous work suffused with a nostalgic, Czech flavor.

The Variations on a Theme of Rossini (it’s the prayer “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Mosé in Egitto ) is an amusing display piece from 1942, dedicated to Gregor Piatigorsky and ingeniously scored for the two instruments. Martin? was terminally ill when he composed the Variations on a Slovak Theme, in Switzerland in 1959 at the home of Paul Sacher. It’s based on a rhapsodic folk tune and the variations proceed in an urgent, continuous manner.

I compared the Watkins’s recording to a 1988 Hyperion CD of the three sonatas by cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Peter Evans. Isserlis and Evans are given a more reverberant acoustic and seem to be closer-miked. In their recording, one hears Martin?’s dynamic markings faithfully but too literally reproduced. For example, if the score has both instruments marked mezzo forte, that is what is heard. The problem is that the goal, in any chamber music, should be a blend of instrumental volume levels that creates an overall balance that will register as mezzo forte but which might involve the piano part being played much more quietly than indicated. Happily, Chandos’s engineers understand this and the less reverberant, more spacious sound provided for the Watkins brothers allows the music to breathe and nuances of each instrumental line to come across. Motoric passages achieve a real sense of motion, unimpeded by accents or accumulated boominess, and the Watkins bring more of the needed bounce to Martin?’s trademark syncopations than Isserlis and Evans.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel


These are meaty, powerful and assured performances, technically impressive, and disclosing once again the expected first class ensemble values cultivated by the Watkins duo. They are keen to stress the vertiginous aspects of the writing, mining every opportunity to characterise richly. There is intense energy and vitality here, and auditors will be rightly impressed by the biting sense of purpose generated. That said, there are certainly other ways of doing things.
In the First Sonata the Watkins brothers find the capricious undertow that launches so much of the writing, as they do the tensile animation. Huw Watkins clearly locates an almost impressionist sense in the staccati that open the central movement. The subsequent development is a maelstrom of almost unhinged writing, and the later pizzicato episode sounds Zemlinskian in its spookiness. The fast tempo of the finale arguably means the music is less manic than a slower one would be – but the Watkins duo take the faster option.
Their approach is a sinewy, molten one throughout. The trenchant approach to the Second Sonata is certainly consistent, its volatility malleable and worrying. For all this volatility I was surprised that the dynamic level in the second movement wasn’t slightly more varied, though the playing is certainly subtly coloured, angst-filled, and even lurid in places. Heavyweight bowing is a feature of the performances generally, which is not to imply that Paul Watkins is insensitive but rather that his approach is explicitly to be contrasted with others who have essayed this repertoire. I happen to find the duo rather tiring in this respect, and wish that they could be persuaded to relax tempi and tonal weight. I also wish Paul Watkins’s cadential passage in the finale of this sonata had not been so heavily vibrated.
The opening of the Third Sonata always strikes me as Martinu’s ‘Policka Carillon’. The sense of nostalgia is pervasive, but whilst the Czech duo of Chuchro and Hála are affectionate and lyric, the Watkins duo reprise the tough love approach that they do, consistently it must be noted, display throughout. The Juliette theme is rather hammered out, and this heavy on the pedal and on the vibrato approach tends to minimise the more playful elements of the music. It’s no surprise that their slow movement is really fast. They sound a touch embarrassed by the opening pizzicato figures if taken slowly, so whip through them. It’s really more of an Allegretto than an Andante. I know the sonata was dedicated to the memory of Hans Kindler but Huw Watkins, in particular, really pile drives his way through it, as he did, rather showily, in the finale of the First.
The two Variations are useful pendants. The Variations on a Slovak Theme is now a recital and disc favourite and rightly so, whilst less often heard but captivating is the Variations on a Theme of Rossini, which was composed just after the Second Sonata.
The recording was made at ubiquitous Potton Hall and captures the ambience well. A dry chilly acoustic was accorded the Mattia Zappa/Massimiliano Mainolfi recording of the sonatas. Saša Vectomov and Josef Pálenícek’s Supraphon set – which includes both variations - has replaced the old Josef Chuchro/Josef Hála performances. This older performance remains my preferred one. Newcomers however will note the divergences that these sonatas can withstand.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Cello and Piano no 1 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Huw Watkins (Piano), Paul Watkins (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; France 
Venue:  Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 
Length: 16 Minutes 20 Secs. 
Variations on a Slovak folksong for Cello and Piano by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Paul Watkins (Cello), Huw Watkins (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959; Switzerland 
Venue:  Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 
Length: 9 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Sonata for Cello and Piano no 2 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Huw Watkins (Piano), Paul Watkins (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; USA 
Venue:  Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 
Length: 18 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Variations on a theme of Rossini for Cello and Piano by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Paul Watkins (Cello), Huw Watkins (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
Venue:  Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 
Length: 7 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Sonata for Cello and Piano no 3 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Paul Watkins (Cello), Huw Watkins (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1952; USA 
Venue:  Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk 
Length: 17 Minutes 52 Secs. 

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