Sonata No.1 for Cello and Piano, H277
Variations on a Slovak Theme, H378
Sonata No.2 for Cello and Piano, H286
Variations on a Theme of Rossini, H290
Sonata No.3 for Cello and Piano, H340
Paul Watkins (cello) & Huw Watkins (piano)
Recorded 1-3 October 2009, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: September 2010
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10602
Duration: 70 minutes
Bohuslav Martinů’s cello sonatas occupy important parts of the composer’s output, the first two of the three written when he was in the midst of an unusually barren spell, going through the process of evacuation at the start of the Second World War.
The First, given its premiere by dedicatee Pierre Fournier, with Rudolf Firkušný, predates Martinů’s departure from Paris, and its music tells a fraught story of the impending flight. Paul and Huw Watkins give a powerful performance, the pianist slightly tentative in the introduction so that the full strength of the cello line can come through. This tails away in the uncertainty of the ending, an uncharacteristically sombre one that carries into the Lento, though the cello gradually finds its singing voice here. The third movement is truly ‘con brio’, the sudden outbursts from the cello finding an ideal counterpart in the pianist’s crisp accompaniment, with the emphatic closing bars drawing impressive virtuosity from the players.
The Second Sonata tells of a different uncertainty, its composer finding himself rather stranded in the middle of New York after his evacuation there, and trying to find resolve through his music. Compared to the recording made on Hyperion by Steven Isserlis and Paul Evans, Paul and Huw Watkins are a little dry on first impression, the closer acoustic giving a more intimate feel but also constricting the musical expression. As a result parallels with Hindemith are perhaps more evident than they might have been – not an insult! – and the music feels more earthbound until it grows into the final pages. That said the sense of longing in the Largo, one of the composer’s characteristically heartfelt slow movements, is palpable thanks to the cellist’s beautifully phrased legato.
The Third Sonata is a much later work dating from 1952, Martinů having returned to Europe after the War. The sense of relief is almost immediately apparent in the piano’s expansive introduction and the cello’s more genial themes, broadly lyrical in this performance. The sonata’s exuberant nature is evident in the development of the first movement, the broad melodic writing of the Andante and the dance setting of the last, perhaps the most obviously Slavic writing here.
In a clever piece of programming Chandos has separated the sonatas by way of the composer’s two sets of variations for cello and piano, themselves very different animals. The Variations on a Slovak Theme is contemporaneous with the Third Sonata, and receives a weighty performance, the piano starting with a flourish while the cellist utilises increasingly broad bow-strokes to make his instrument’s presence felt. Both players perform this with conviction and flair, digging out the gritty detail in the faster sections.
The Rossini Variations is more frivolous, requiring technical brilliance and an instinctive humour. The former is evident throughout, though at times both performers could have played with more freedom, utilising the potential changes of tempo more. Again this is a reading that grows in stature, however, the players enjoying the exaggerated flourishes at the close.
The recording places both instruments relatively close to the listener, but succeeds in capturing the intimacy and deep feeling of this music, as do the Watkins brothers.