Martin Honegger Schoeck Cello Concertos

Even at first glance this is a fairly promising, indeed astute, program: three Cello Concertos by significant composers linked to Switzerland. Unlike Frank Martin’s earlier dodecaphonic works, this 1966 Concerto is written in a broadly romantic and characterful idiom, with many remarkable felicities of tone-colour, such as his unexpected matching of saxophone and cello in the first movement, or the bell sounds in the slow second. Martin brings a strong sense of concision to the unfolding structure: none of the three movements reach ten minutes, and the listener is frequently reminded by the mercurial passing detail that this is music that merits multiple plays. His Finale, alternating pithy energy and expressive cantabile, is perhaps the closest he comes to the earlier Martin sound, but the beautifully contextualised jazzy saxophone—and even the final chord—hint at a previously unadmitted irony.

Honegger’s spiky, witty, and brief essay in the genre could not be more different. His single-movement work is over in fifteen minutes; the musical language has a characteristic easy-going melodiousness when it is not bristling with discreet modernity; the chamber-textured ensemble writing makes no effort to meld with the cello. The work is, as one would expect from Honegger, almost bucolic in its charm, but its art is in not quite concealing the background sophistication. This is real connoisseurs’ music.

Schoeck, too, had a sophisticated style; his most famous work, the songcycle Notturno, was championed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and placed him firmly among the great 20th century vocal composers. The Cello Concerto, although written for solo cello with string orchestra—the composer denying himself the scope for colour provided by wind instruments—is the largest of the three works Christian Polterra has recorded here. Its soundworld belies its date: premièred in 1948, it could have been written any time after the 1890s; in fact the intense cantabile of the cello part is imbued with a nostalgia similar to that of the Elgar Cello Concerto. After a mellow first movement almost as long as the entire Honegger work, Schoeck provides one of the great slow movements: opening with a series of achingly sad, slow chromatically descending chords in the cello, orchestra and cello alternate in unfolding a stately, sombre, melodic thread that winds to an eventual standstill. The ensuing and tiny Presto movement injects a little Swiss folkiness into the work’s psyche, but Schoeck seemingly has no desire to sustain this rather Grieg-like mood. Instead he launches directly into the extraordinary and haunting finale, which clicks from elegiac vastness to faux-naïve sprightliness. This is a major work of considerable richness that deserves to be heard far more frequently.

This CD is admittedly very traditional: a well-selected program of predominantly romantic music with just a hint of contemporaneity in the Honegger, played with almost uncanny suavity by the great Christian Poltéra and his cohorts, conductor Tuomas Hannikainen and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. It is also profoundly, charmingly, satisfying.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.