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Pfitzner: Cello Concerto; Mayer: Praghanda, Ragamalas / Rohan De Saram

Pfitzner / Mayer / Netherlands Radio Orch / Gregor
Release Date: 05/08/2012 
Label:  First Hand Records   Catalog #: 14   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hans PfitznerJohn Mayer
Performer:  Rohan de SaramDruvi De SaramRohan de SaramJohn Mayer
Conductor:  Bohumil Gregor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PFITZNER Cello Concerto 1. MAYER Prabhanda 2. 6 Ragamalas 3 Rohan de Saram (vc); 1 Bohumil Gregor, cond; 1 Netherlands RO; 2 Druvi de Saram (pn); 3 John Mayer (tanpura) Read more class="BULLET12"> • FHR REMASTERS FHR14 (59:51)

This disc is all about the English-born (1939) Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram, who studied with Gaspar Cassadó and Pablo Casals. De Saram was cellist of the Arditti Quartet from 1979 to 2005 but now pursues a solo career. Hans Pfitzner’s G-Major Cello Concerto, written for Cassadó in 1935, is a 16-minute single movement in which the soloist plays almost continuously. The cello’s long, lyrical phrases are matched with an orchestral accompaniment that surprises in its variety and character, as often opposing and contrasting the romantic line as supporting it. It is a gorgeous concerto, a little-known gem of the instrument’s limited repertoire.

There is a 1940 concert recording by Cassadó with Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, about which I said, “One can’t imagine a finer representation of this brooding concerto” ( Fanfare 14:3). This one comes close, as does another by David Geringas with the Bamberg Symphony under Werner Andreas Albert on CPO. All three cellists are magnificent. The orchestral playing varies inversely with the recorded sound: The power, color, and character of the Concertgebouw come through clearly on a well-balanced monaural radio recording that has suffered some slight deterioration. The Netherlands Radio Orchestra is lush and deep in this 1980 performance recorded for broadcast in warm, reverberant stereo. The Bamberg Symphony is satisfactory in a 1992 digital stereo recording. The CPO disc has the advantage of including Pfitzner’s two other cello concertos. After several hearings of each, I have come to prefer Saram and Gregor, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

John Mayer (1929–2004) was born in Calcutta to an Anglo-Indian family. He studied in Bombay, Calcutta, and at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He played violin in two London orchestras from 1953 to 1965 and became professor and composer-in-residence at Birmingham’s conservatory. Although the titles of these two chamber works suggest a foreign (Hindustani) culture, they fit easily into our experience of Western art music. To paraphrase the program notes, Prabhanda is an ancient Indian word similar to our “suite”; this Prabhanda is based on “the ragas and talas of India.” Its eight titled sections represent techniques and forms of Indian music; their wide variety of mood and tempo suggest everything from a Bach solo suite to Kodály. The cello is sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by the piano, played by Druvi de Saram, the cellist’s brother. It was written for them in 1982, and this recording was made the following year. Powerful, fascinating music; impressive—even mighty—performances; and stunning recorded sound!

Again the program notes: “Ragamalas—The arts in North Indian [sic] are very closely intertwined. For each raga there is a corresponding ragamala painting which is also accompanied by a poem.” Mayer’s six musical Ragamalas (1983) represent pictures that each tell a story (Mayer has written extensive annotations for each section of his music). Again the solo cello opens the proceedings, and the tanpura appears slowly in the background. The notes tell us nothing about the instrument, but a brief Internet search reveals that there are several types of this long-necked lute. The instrumental tanpura (the one I think is used here) is a small, multi-steel-stringed (four to six) instrument. Here it produces a variety of small sounds, from a high, percussive ring to a rasping drone; I am reminded of the metallic resonances produced by Haydn’s baryton in trios written for his Prince Esterházy. This music is a bit farther removed from our norm than Mayer’s Prabhanda , but again there is a great variety of expression and tempos, including passages that suggest a jazzed-up version of Bach. The tanpura is always distant and subtle; since the composer is playing it, it must be what he wants.

In sum, this disc ventures into two distinct, unusual musical worlds, and comes up a winner in both. You do not have to be musically adventurous to enjoy it.

FANFARE: James H. North
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Cello no 1 in G major, Op. 42 by Hans Pfitzner
Performer:  Rohan de Saram (Cello)
Conductor:  Bohumil Gregor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935; Germany 
Prahbanda by John Mayer
Performer:  Druvi De Saram (Piano), Rohan de Saram (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1982; India 
Ragamalas by John Mayer
Performer:  Rohan de Saram (Cello), John Mayer (Tanpura)

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