Last June I took great pleasure in writing about Decca’s release of a box of all the recordings that cellist János Starker made on the Mercury Living Presence label. Nevertheless, for all of the breadth of repertoire in this ten-CD set, I was a bit disappointed that the twentieth century was given relatively modest attention. I thought that this might have just been a matter of Starker’s personal taste until last month, when hänssler CLASSIC released one of their albums made in collaboration with SWR>>music, the digital download label for recordings made in the German studios of Südwestrundfunk (SWR, “southwest broadcasting”). The album I discovered had Starker playing three decidedly different twentieth-century cello concertos, each with a different conductor and with two different orchestras affiliated with SWR.
The selections on this album are, in order of appearance, as follows:
- Paul Hindemith’s 1940 cello concerto with Andreas von Lukacsy conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
- Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 125, which he called a “Symphony-Concerto” and wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich (who premiered it in 1952), conducted on this album by Ernest Bour leading the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, based in both Baden-Baden and Freiburg
- Einojuhani Rautavaara’s first cello concerto (Opus 41), completed in 1968 and conducted on this album by Herbert Blomstedt, also leading the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
This is an imaginatively conceived album, presenting three concertos from three successive decades in chronological order, each reflecting a different aesthetic. Nevertheless, there is a certain unity to the overall plan in that each of these three composers has his own characteristic approach to instrumentation. As a result none of these composers reduces the orchestra to an “accompanying” ensemble. Each has his own vision of an overall sonorous experience to which soloist and orchestra contribute in equal measure.
In addition there is a generous supply of wit in the compositions by both Hindemith and Prokofiev. Those who fall back on the clichéd description of Hindemith as stodgy will be more than pleasantly surprised, although it still may well be the case that, like so many other works by this composer, playing the music always ends up being more fun than listening to it. Where concertos are concerned, that fun is shared by the soloist; and there are definitely ludic overtones to the cadenzas that Hindemith provided.
What is particularly interesting about the Prokofiev composition is how the composer could be so upbeat during a very dark time. Prokofiev had been in ill health since suffering a concussion shortly before the end of the Second World War in 1945. This was only the first step in a serious decline in his health. By 1949 his doctors had ordered him to limit his work on composing to one hour a day. To make matters worse, as a result of the Zhdanov Doctrine, Prokofiev once again found himself on the wrong side of Soviet authorities. Nevertheless, 1949 was the year in which he wrote his Opus 119 C major sonata for Rostropovich. The 22-year-old cellist became an inspiring force in his life; and Opus 125 was his last major composition.
For all that context, however, this is hardly the music of a composer who knows that he is a death’s door. (That would be the Opus 131 symphony in C-sharp minor, in which he repurposes the sound of the ticking clock from his Cinderella ballet score to mark off the final moments of his own life.) If Hindemith’s concerto excels in gentle wit, Prokofiev’s Opus 125 goes to the threshold of raucous good cheer.
Rautavaara, on the other hand, seemed more interested in exploring new sonorities than in reinforcing those sonorities with a rhetorical stance. Nevertheless, Starker and Blomstedt clearly shared an enthusiasm for Rautavaara’s adventurous use of instrumental resources; and that enthusiasm is clearly evident through this recorded interpretation of the score. As the result the entire album presents Starker to us at his most good-natured. He is even smiling in the line drawing on the cover of the album. One might take this as a gracious invitation to explore what this recording has to offer, and it is definitely an invitation worth accepting.