Unusual Starker Recordings Reissued

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HINDEMITH: Cello Concerto / János Starker, cello; SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart; Andreas von Lukacsy, cond / PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia Concertante for Cello & Orchestra.* RAUTAVAARA: Cello Concerto No. 1+ / János Starker, cello; SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg; *Ernest Bour, +Herbert Blomstedt, cond / SWR Music 19418CD

This unusual release features the late János Starker in a program of 20th century cello pieces that I hadn’t known he had made. All of them date from the 1970s (the Hindemith from 1971, the other two from 1975) and display Starker’s virtuosity in full bloom.

Although I disagree with the statement in the booklet that “Among the legendary cello virtuosos of the twentieth century, such as Casals, Mainardi, Feuermann, Piatigorsky, Fournier, Shafran, Navarra, Rostropovich or Tortelier, he was the most flawless, without equal in the way he constantly combined technical perfection, concentrated culture, exciting expression and objective conception”—in my view, Feuermann was his equal in this and in addition had a more beautiful tone and more feeling in his playing—there is no question that he was an eminent cellist, more technically adroit than Casals, Piatagorsky and even Rostropovich.

I also found it interesting that Starker considered the Hindemith piece to be “the best cello concerto of the twentieth century; the best constructed, with superb musical material, fabulously orchestrated; much better written than Shostakovich, Prokofiev and all the others.” He plays it with his patented cool tone, but also with superb forward momentum and his flawless technique. His cello practically soars through the music, and although I felt that conductor Andreas von Lukaczy provided a background that was at times too loud and splashy for the music, it certainly does not lack in excitement. Indeed, Lukaczy’s intense reading of the orchestral score helps offset Starker’s cool but beautiful reading.

Interestingly, even with a different conductor (Ernest Bour), the performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony Concerto is much like the Hindemith in its brisk, no-nonsense orchestral contours and dark, pensive cello playing. The question then arises: Is Starker’s approach, musical, well-articulated but emotionally cool, appropriate for this music? Hindemith was pretty much a neo-classical composer, but Prokofiev was Russian to the core and generally liked more effusive readings of his music. I prefer Rostropovich with Seiji Ozawa and the London Symphony, even though Slava’s technique was not as spotless and he used both portamento and a slightly wider vibrato. Nonetheless, Starker and Bour bring out the structure of the piece very well. Their reading of the second movement, “Allegro giusto,” is particularly outstanding, and I liked the wit and sparkle with which they played the last movement, a real gem.

Rautavaara’s first and most often-played Cello Concerto is singularly unusual in construction, using angular lines that almost sound as if the cellist is “sawing” at his instrument in the opening. Staccato wind and brass triplets, along with arpeggiated flute, are heard behind the soloist as the music becomes more lyrical though never quite melodic in the conventional sense. Ominous low string tremolos and piercing high winds give the music an odd feel. Here, Starker’s cool but perfectly controlled playing is perfect for this Nordic music.  And, for once, the conductor, in this case Herbert Blomstedt, is more sensitive to the music’s varying moods. He is certainly dramatic when he needs to be but does not stay in one mood or color throughout. This variety of approach would server Blomstedt well in the 1980s, when he made his now-classic set of Carl Nielsen’s Symphonies with the San Francisco Orchestra, and to a certain extent it relaxes Starker as well. The cellist plays with a bit less tension and more sostenuto here than he did in the Prokofiev piece, with excellent results, though in the development of the second movement the soloist’s music sounds more like an extended cadenza with orchestra than a cello concerto in the traditional sense. In the third movement, the music has more of a forward pulse and the structure, if not more traditional, is more regular in its classical form—though the ending sort of fades away, and does so rather abruptly.

Despite my slight misgivings about the Prokofiev, this is a fascinating CD and one worth exploring, particularly for admirers of the cellist.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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