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Alchemy between continents – Mark Kosower talks about his highly acclaimed recording of Ginastera’s two Cello Concertos

August 24, 2011

Mark Kosower interviewed by Dominy Clements

Mark Kosower

As one of today’s leading cellists, Mark Kosower has established a world-wide reputation and the respect of musicians and critics alike through his remarkable record as an orchestral leader, soloist and educator. His exploration of less well-known repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries brought him to the music of Alberto Ginastera, and within 10 years of discovering his music he had become the first to record the composer’s entire output of works for cello solo. His critically acclaimed recording of Ginastera’s two cello concertos has put a further crown on this achievement. Mark Kosower’s clear affinity with Ginastera’s personal idiom and the two cello concertos in particular go almost without saying, and his enthusiastic response to this composer and these works speaks for itself.

‘My first experience with the music of Alberto Ginastera was in 1998 when I first learned the work most popular with cellists, the Pampeana No. 2. At the time it was the obvious qualities of the music that struck me such as its boldness, the obsessive Argentine rhythms, and images of horses galloping across the Pampas. I performed the work as part of my New York debut recital at the Frick Museum in 1999. It wasn’t until I was introduced by Joel Krosnick to both the Puneña No. 2 and the Cello Sonata that I began to develop a much deeper relationship with the music of Ginastera. I immediately felt a strong connection with these works as they possessed qualities that I was striving for in my own work. There was a directness and immediacy of expression in this music that was sophisticated yet essentially very simple and unpretentious. The musical language was exotic and evocative, being rooted in the folk music of Argentina as well as the ancient civilizations of Bolivia and Peru. It also incorporated many of the cutting edge avant-garde compositional techniques of the 20th century. But the music was, at the same time, strongly and unmistakably rooted in the tradition of Western art music, this being illustrated through its European musical structures and forms.

‘Like Ginastera I function as a living and evolving link from the past to the future. I am a cellist whose playing is clearly rooted in the classical playing traditions of the 20th century. At the same time, I am a modern player belonging to my generation and am working, along with many others, for the advancement of music and cello playing in the 21st century.’

The recording of Ginastera’s cello concertos is dedicated to the memory of Alberto Ginastera’s wife Aurora Nátola-Ginastera. Did you refer to her recording with Max Bragado-Darman/Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León when preparing your own?

GINASTERA Cello Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Naxos 8.572372

“exciting & technically solid performance”

“The recording is top drawer”
The Classical Review

“marvellous team performance”
— Bargain of the Month, MusicWeb International

‘I had heard Aurora’s recording of the concertos but did not refer to it very much in preparing the two concertos for recording. I did consult Max Bragado-Darman concerning some of the details in the concertos before recording them. Since the Concerto No. 2 is about 70 percent the same as the Cello Sonata it was not difficult to prepare this work since I had performed the Sonata about 50 or 60 times by then. When I was discussing my recording plans with Aurora she told me, “there isn’t much to practice since you already know the piece.” However, the Concerto No. 1 was an entirely different story. I had not performed the work before and did not have any rehearsal time with the Bamberg Symphony before the recording sessions. It turned out to be one of the most technically challenging works I have ever played due to the incredibly virtuosic writing and because much of the work is written in both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument, sometimes at very high speeds, which is very difficult to execute with the highest quality sound. What made things even more difficult was that I was striving for the utmost in clarity and purity of expression through every harmonic implication, which required the utmost in precision of execution. At least for the time being I can answer the question, “Have you played the Ginastera Cello Concerto No.1 before?” the way Janos Starker used to answer about the Martinů Sonata No. 3: “No, but I’ve recorded it.”’

The booklet notes for the concertos release mention your meeting Aurora Nátola-Ginastera and being given the opportunity to perform using the maestro’s own piano. Such experiences can provide intangible but nonetheless very real insights into the world of the composer. Was this the case in this instance, and if so, is it possible to describe something of the chemistry this involved?

‘I’m not sure if it was the piano or the fact that we were in the presence of Aurora, but when my wife Jee-Won and I were playing for Aurora in Ginastera’s studio it was as if the walls of the apartment knew the music all too well and were resonating with us. Jee-Won recalls Mr. Ginastera’s piano as being a phenomenal instrument.’

The personality of an instrument can have a strong effect on its player and on a performance. Can you tell us a little about the Starker Nebula—the cello used for the Ginastera recording—and how your relationship with the instrument has worked?

‘The Starker Nebula used to assume the No. 3 position in Janos Starker’s collection of instruments behind his Matteo Goffriller and Joseph Guarneri cellos before the sale of the Guarneri some years back. The Nebula is a composite instrument of unknown origin that is most likely more than 200 years old. Despite its mysterious history it possesses, in both quality and quantity, a sound that competes and surpasses many 18th century instruments from the elite classes. As with any instrument my relationship with the Nebula has evolved over time. An instrument has to grow into the artist the same way an artist must adapt and grow with the instrument. The former could undoubtedly be proved scientifically as atomic particles in the wood will re-align themselves differently according to the player with time. What was fascinating when I first borrowed the Nebula in 2006 was that I sounded a lot like Janos Starker regardless of how I played the instrument. This is typical of any instrument that has been played extensively by a musical giant. With time the instrument began to sound more like me and respond more specifically to my playing. Some five years later the cello really does feel like mine since I have played it undisturbed since then, but a part of Janos Starker remains in the instrument (beyond the fact that he still owns it) and always will be a part of the instrument’s composition. This is the beauty of playing an old instrument as each artist contributes to its development adding complexity and dimension to the instrument’s character throughout the ages.’

Despite their colour and beauty of sound in the cello concertos it is hard to ignore the darkness, the intensely lamenting lines and the sometimes confrontational nature of the music in these works. Aside from the given literary associations—the quotes Ginastera added to each movement of the Cello Concerto No. 2, do you sense an undercurrent of politics in Ginastera’s works—perhaps a human response to some of the horrors of Argentina’s relatively recent past?

‘An astute observation. There are definitely dark and even sinister undercurrents that run through the two cello concertos, particularly in the first. While there is no evidence that either work is connected to any particular political event it would be safe to say that the anxiety and uncertainty of the 1960s is strongly reflected in the first concerto while a similar undercurrent exists in the second though it is offset to a greater degree by music of a more popular vein. The solo cello in both works represents innocence, heroism, and beauty while also expressing, as you put it, the “human response” to what is often a threatening landscape. As the second concerto was intensely personal the hero or, in this case heroine, is clearly Aurora. This concerto is, in terms of musical language, a synthesis of all periods from Ginastera’s creative output. The intensely lamenting lines you mentioned are particularly prominent in the Trio notturnale of the first concerto as well as in the Nottilucente of the second concerto.’

Both of these cello concertos have a serious ‘wow’ factor and seem like a real gift for the cello. How would you place these works in relationship to other great 20th century concertos—in terms of their quality and stature?

‘I would easily rate both works as two of the greatest 20th century cello concertos in the company of the Shostakovich concertos, the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto, and the concertos of Barber, Dutilleux, Elgar, Hindemith (1940), Lutoslawski, and Walton among others. Both concertos by Ginastera are masterworks in terms of construction, content, originality, and communicative power. I predict that both works will enter the standard repertory in the next 10-20 years.’

Bearing in mind your wide experience with a variety of orchestras, do you feel that your position as solo cellist with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra gave this recording a special synergy?

‘I never discussed or overheard anything on the subject when I was in the Bamberg Symphony. However, it became clear to me when I became a member that in addition to being a wonderful group of people who loved music, loved to perform, and were kind to guest soloists and conductors, the Bamberg Symphony really supported each other when a member of the orchestra appeared with them as a soloist. In these situations you could feel the excitement, the pride, and the commitment to giving their best effort for a colleague. This definitely held true when I made this recording. It was an overwhelming experience and the recording was undoubtedly enhanced by this energy along with Lothar Zagrosek’s profound understanding of the scores. He once spent four weeks with the Ginasteras in the early 1970s when the opera house in Kiel was producing Ginastera’s second opera Bomarzo.’

In conclusion, Mark added that ‘I am very grateful to all of the people who helped make this recording possible. I am hopeful that this recording will be yet another catalyst that brings Ginastera’s music to its rightful place at the forefront of the repertory’, a desire founded on a quality of performance which now stands as a permanent standard-bearer for these remarkable works.

Also available:

GINASTERA Complete Cello & Piano Music
Naxos 8.570569

Mark Kosower Biography & Discography

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Biography & Discography

Alberto Ginastera Biography & Discography


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