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Martin, Honegger, Schoeck: Cello Concertos / Poltera, Hannikainen, Malmo Symphony

Poltera / Martin / Honegger / Hannikainen
Release Date: 03/13/2012 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1737  
Composer:  Frank MartinArthur HoneggerOthmar Schoeck
Performer:  Christian Poltera
Conductor:  Tuomas Hannikainen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

In 2007-08, the Swiss cellist Christian Poltéra made his debut on BIS with a series of discs dedicated to three compatriots of his: the composers Othmar Schoeck, Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin. The unconventional programs mixed chamber music and orchestral works centered on the cello, and were received with acclaim by the international music press. The three concertos, composed between 1929 and 1966 and all too rarely heard today, have now been combined; an occasion not to be missed by anyone interested in exploring some highly individual 20th-century cello scores, or in getting to know one of today’s most impressive young cellists.

Reviews of the recordings that make up this disc:

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I've never understood why Frank Martin's Cello Concerto isn't a regular visitor on the concert circuit, but then I've never understood why Martin's music in general isn't more often played. It's accessible in a way defined by modern neo-classicism with a touch of late Romanticism, flirtation with advanced techniques barely noticeable to the listener, wonderful, Gallic textures--and it's invariably gratefully written for instrumentalists. All those attributes are evident in this excellent new recording featuring one of Europe's rising young cellists, Christian Poltéra.

The Concerto is a multi-faceted work whose opening movement begins and ends with a slow, melancholic cello melody that sandwiches a moderately paced but lively allegro. The Adagietto is nicely sung by Poltéra and the wind-led orchestra, while the Vivace last movement is more openly virtuosic. Here we can admire the cellist's ease in the highest register and the fluency of his pizzicato passages. Jazz influences are felt in the slithering figures in the solo part, the playful piano rhythms of the movement's start, and the important presence of the saxophone. But even within that movement's energetic context Martin finds balance through lyrical cello episodes.

Poltéra is ably partnered in the Concerto by the Malmö Symphony, led by Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen, who together render Martin's transparent orchestration with precision. The sound tends to favor the solo instrument, but not to an extent that compromises your enjoyment. This version likely will supplant or complement an old Cascavelle CD (in monophonic sound) of a live 1967 performance of the Concerto by Pierre Fournier with Ernest Ansermet, made just months after the cellist gave the premiere. Fournier plays the work with slightly more intensity, brighter tone, and more flowing tempos than Poltéra's equally valid alternative view.

– Dan Davis, ClassicsToday.com, reviewing the Martin Cello Concerto on BIS 1637

I am completely mystified at the fact that the Cello Concerto isn't better known. It has wonderful, jazzy tunes (it sounds a lot like Gershwin in places), plenty of fireworks for the soloist, and it packs a huge amount of contrast into its quarter-hour of playing time. Perhaps a few moments are too acerbic to make it a pops concert favorite, but it's not far from it, and Christian Poltéra turns in just the kind of snappy, youthful performance that evokes the roaring '20s and the Paris of Les Six--even if Honegger's basic seriousness keeps popping through now and again. Tempos here are brisk, and some listeners might prefer Rostropovich's marginally more relaxed reading of the music's easygoing, lyrical passages; but by any standard this is a sensational performance.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com, reviewing the Honegger Cello Concerto on BIS 1617

Othmar Schoeck wrote very few pieces for orchestra, and even fewer for full orchestra. This seems to be a pattern with 20th-century Swiss composers, perhaps due to the ready availability of chamber orchestras and smaller groupings, in addition to the standard-sized ensembles in Zurich and Geneva. Or maybe it's a leftover Calvinist inhibition. Whatever the ultimate reason, Schoeck is best known as a song composer, and his Cello Concerto is scored for solo plus strings. Happily, the limited forces result in music that lacks neither color nor variety.

The work's four movements play for a bit more than half an hour and are well contrasted, while the composer's expertise in writing vocal music assures a quantity of lyrical and attractive melodic ideas. Christian Poltéra plays it very well, with aptly singing tone and plenty of rhythmic heft. There are a couple of places in the long first two movements (taking up two-thirds of the whole) where Schoeck, and not the players, lets the tension sag a bit, but the problem isn't too serious. Conductor Tuomas Ollila and the orchestra sound perfectly comfortable in music that hardly could have been familiar to them.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com, reviewing the Schoeck Cello Concerto on BIS 1597

Full Review:


MARTIN Cello Concerto. HONEGGER Cello Concerto. SCHOECK Cello Concerto Christian Poltéra (vc); Tuomas Hannikainen, cond; Malmö SO BIS 1737

A moment of confusion is quickly resolved. This is not just a recycling but a uniting of works originally disunited on three separate CDs. What threw me momentarily was that when the Martin was recorded in 2007 and released on BIS 1637, it was programmed with other Martin works and conductor Tuomas Hannikainen went by the name Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen. Apparently, the Ollila has now been dropped.

The Honegger, also recorded in 2007, appeared on BIS 1617 in an all-Honegger program. Earliest recorded is the Schoeck, in 2006. It came out on BIS 1597 and, like the others, was made up of a program of works devoted to a single composer.

All three of the earlier CDs are still in circulation, and this is fair warning that if you collected one or another of them, or all three, you will be duplicating recordings you already have. The original all-Martin release (BIS 1637) was reviewed by me in Fanfare 31:6. The original all-Honegger release (BIS 1617) was reviewed by Steven E. Ritter in 31:5. The Schoeck doesn’t show up in the Fanfare Archive, so as far as I can tell, it was never reviewed. In my newfound desire for brevity, I refer you to the two previous review entries for coverage of the Martin and Honegger. I will deal here with the Schoeck.

Othmar Schoeck (1886–1957) was a Swiss composer who, but for his opera Penthesilea , is largely forgotten. A student and initially a disciple of Max Reger, Schoeck later met and was influenced by the ideas of Ferruccio Busoni. But Schoeck was a restless soul, constantly looking to others instead of himself to define his musical persona. By the 1920s he was flirting with styles as diverse as those by Berg and Les Six; of the latter, Honegger became an important influence when Schoeck met him in Paris. Unfortunately, Schoeck didn’t always exercise the best judgment in picking friends and collaborators. In the early 1940s, he teamed up with German poet Hermann Burte to work on a new opera, Das Schloss Dürande , for the Berlin State Opera. Though Schoeck himself never expressed any Nazi sympathies, the Swiss were appalled at his impolitic partnering with an avowed supporter of the Nazi regime. Schoeck continued to compose, but this unpleasant episode pretty much guaranteed that the Swiss weren’t going to be erecting a statue in his honor.

Much of Schoeck’s output consists of songs and vocal works. There is only a handful of orchestral works, among which are the cello concerto heard here, a violin concerto, a concerto for horn and strings, fragments of a piano concerto and another cello concerto, and some miscellaneous pieces for orchestra. Of chamber works, there are a couple of string quartets, a handful of violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and a sonata for bass clarinet.

The cello concerto dates from 1947, after the Hermann Burte business. Whatever previous influences Schoeck may have been under, he is here clearly in a romantic mood. Chris Walton’s program note suggests that Schoeck’s choice of A Minor/Major for the overall key of the work may have been prompted by two other Romantic-period cello concertos, namely those by Schumann and Saint-Saëns. Mention of the latter strikes me as particularly apt because my first impression upon hearing Schoeck’s concerto was that it sounded like Saint-Saëns “Regerized.” The melodic outlines and rhythmic contours are indeed reminiscent of Saint-Saëns’s A-Minor Cello Concerto, but strange chromatic turns in the harmony call to mind the less diatonic and somewhat less consonant styles of both Reger and Busoni, probably the two most significant influences on Schoeck. The expansive slow movement is a real beauty, echoing the early Schoenberg of Transfigured Night and the even closer late Richard Strauss of Metamorphosen.

Cellist Johannes Goritzky beat Poltéra to the punch by about a dozen years when he recorded Schoeck’s concerto with the German Chamber Academy Neuss for Claves in the early 1990s, but Poltéra’s performance of the work strikes me as more responsive to the music’s moods, both serious and playful, as in the third-movement scherzo marked Presto, and the strings of Malmö’s Symphony Orchestra are fuller and richer sounding than their Neuss counterparts.

Schoeck’s cello concerto is a gorgeous score in a very, very late—I’d be inclined to call it post—Romantic style, and its conjoining here with two other concertos by roughly contemporaneous Swiss composers makes for a logical and rewarding program. If not for the pesky problem of potentially duplicating the original BIS releases from which these three works are transferred, I’d give this an unqualified recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Cello by Frank Martin
Performer:  Christian Poltera (Cello)
Conductor:  Tuomas Hannikainen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Switzerland 
Concerto for Cello by Arthur Honegger
Performer:  Christian Poltera (Cello)
Conductor:  Tuomas Hannikainen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; France 
Concerto for Cello in A major/minor, Op. 61 by Othmar Schoeck
Performer:  Christian Poltera (Cello)
Conductor:  Tuomas Hannikainen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; Switzerland 

Featured Sound Samples

Cello Concerto (Martin): I. Lento - Allegro moderato - Lento
Cello Concerto (Honegger)
Cello Concerto (Schoek): II. Andante tranquillo - Piů lento - Tempo I

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