Janos Starker: In Memoriam = Cello Concertos of MARTINU, PROKOFIEV & DOHNANYI – Praga Digitals

Janos Starker: In Memoriam = MARTINU: Cello Concerto No. 1; PROKOFIEV: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op. 58; DOHNANYI: Konzertstueck for Cello and Orchestra in D, Op. 12 – Janos Starker, c./ Czech Radio Sym./ John Nelson (Martinu)/ Philharmonia Orch./ Walter Susskind – Praga Digitals PRD 250 304, 77:58 (12/11/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

This tribute to the great Hungarian cello virtuoso Janos Starker (1924-2013) bears the subtitle “Forgotten Cello Masterworks of the XXth Century,” reminding us that Starker saw a direct line from the Bach Cello Suites to the Unaccompanied Kodaly Sonata and beyond. The Martinu Concerto (1930; rev. 1939 and 1955, dedicated to Pierre Fournier) presents Starker and John Nelson in live performance (19 March 1990) of the third version of the score in Prague, with Starker’s playing a suave-toned Matteo Goffriller instrument.

“I know I am not demonstrative,” admitted Starker to me in an Atlanta interview, “but listen beneath my icy demeanor.” The first movement Allegro moderato utilizes acerbic jazz elements in its exposition, tinged with moments of romantic melancholy The second movement Andante moderato steals the show, a genuine aria for cello and orchestra in which Starker’s clear, penetrating intonation carries us into a lyrical Arcadia. Starker has a plaintive cadenza mid-way, persuasive as anything in Brahms, whom Starker admired quite openly: “If you ask me which musician I read for pleasure most consistently, I say ‘Brahms.’ If you ask me whom I consider the most ‘complete musician,’ then I say ‘Enescu.’” The final Allegro reverts to a post-Gershwin, Parisian sensibility that includes much orchestral busywork – especially in the battery and snare drum – to accompany Starker’s often explosive solo part. When Starker does sing, the effect illuminates the soul. Characteristically, after a brief cadenza, Martinu arranges the solo to reinvest the ritornello with brilliant energy that rushes to a peremptory, definitive last chord.

Prokofiev’s 1938-39 e minor Concerto had been conceived for Gregor Piatagorsky, but the composer could not dedicate the work so officially, due to Piatagorsky’s status as “a refugee from the Soviet Union.” The premier by cellist Lev Berezovsky proved unhappy. When I met with Starker in Atlanta, I bore with me the EMI LP of this performance – coupled with the Dohnanyi – from 14-17 July 1956, an Angel record with a blank, brown cardboard cover with a simple, silver label. “That’s a rarity you’ve got there,” quipped Starker. I should add parenthetically that the Prokofiev/Dohnanyi combination came out on CD in 1996 on an EMI “Artist Profile” set dedicated to Starker. We then proceeded for an evening of discussion about Ferenc Fricsay.

The opening Andante proceeds with martial material we’ve heard in Romeo’s Departure from the Op. 67 ballet. The remainder of the movement, Poco meno mosso – Adagio, becomes misty and melancholy. A scherzo ensures, marked Allegro giusto, that has Starker singing and sailing against scurrying figures from the Philharmonia Orchestra. The solo writing, rather punishing, conveys the slicing wit we know from the D Major Violin Concerto. A decidedly lyrical episode follows, once more indicative of the strong romantic character that invests Prokofiev’s outwardly thorny persona. The Finale: Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo – at first moves with a gloomy lyricism akin to the Romeo and Juliet ballet. A loosely concocted theme and variations, the music allies the solo cello with various instrumental timbres. Quasi-cadenza, Starker opens a new, energized series of variations that Prokofiev harmonizes with religioso chords. The alternating pizzicato, arco, and high harmonics passages in Starker’s cadenza resonate with the luxury of his Stradivarius instrument. The orchestra brass and winds, with snare, re-engage the procession whose funereal cast once more allies it to the tragic ballet. The last page turns up the bravura for a short explosive moment.

Erno von Dohnanyi wrote his Konzertstueck 1903-1904 much in the manner of Schumann and Richard Strauss. In one continuous movement that subdivides into a three-movement concerto, the piece proffers a long, gorgeous melody that exploits the singing capacities of both solo and orchestra. The scale of the piece achieves a grand luster whose periods might owe a few debts to Bruckner. Starker has several opportunities for solo exclamations, and his tone and delivery remain unsentimentally razor sharp. The bold coloration of his low register warrants its own exegesis. The enture middlesection raises the acoustic level to something like a cello version of Ein Hldenleben. Economically, Dohnanyi re-uses his opening materials for the Allegro non troppo of his ‘third movement.’ As an example of late Hungarian romantic temper, the piece rates the respect the last few years apportion it, especially when realized by a titan like Starker, whose sound has been magnified so colossally.

—Gary Lemco


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