J. Martin Cello Sonata, “4 Noble Truths.” Recuerda. 3 Nocturnes. Ropa Vieja. Hollywood Variations (vc) Yehuda Hanani (pn); William Schimmel (acc); Arti Dixson (perc)

This is the first commercially available recording of Jorge Martin’s output of cello music. Martin is a Cuban-born American composer who has had a prolific career in a variety of media. He writes in an appealing tonal idiom that is often engrossing and quite original. A serious-minded composer, Martin has a penchant for grappling with difficult philosophical concepts and important existential questions, and the five works on this recording, which were composed between 1997 and 2010, are cases in point. 

The disc opens with Four Noble Truths, a 30-minute, four-movement sonata for cello and piano that purports to be loosely based on Buddha’s teachings about suffering, impermanence, and the path to enlightenment. Whatever the source of Martin’s inspiration, this is interesting music that stands very much on its own and is worth hearing. I am particularly taken with the somber second movement and the extended finale, which provides an appropriate conclusion to this passionate and mysterious work. 

Perhaps even more remarkable is the 10-minute piece for unaccompanied cello, Recuerda, which Martin wrote in 2005 for a close friend who was terminally ill. Although composed with the expectation that it would be played at a memorial service, the piece was premiered by cellist Yehuda Hanani while its dedicatee was still alive, ostensibly to celebrate his “77.7th birthday.” Recuerda begins and ends austerely, with the cello imitating the drone of bagpipes. Martin claims that the extended middle section is an homage to the dedicatee’s favorite composer, Robert Schumann. To my cars, it is in fact a lot closer particularly in character—to Shostakovich’s late works, such as the Viola Sonata. Regardless, Martin’s affection for his dying friend is apparent throughout, and the piece as a whole is deeply affecting. I believe that Martin has made a very important addition to the cello repertoire. Cellists looking to add contemporary music to their recitals would be well advised to give Recuerda a close listen. 

Although comparatively lighter fare, the remaining works—the nocturnes for cello and piano; the crossover, Latin-inspired Ropa Vieja for cello, accordion and percussion, and the mildly sarcastic Hollywood Variations for cello and piano are very enjoyable and add to the listener’s understanding of Martin’s musical interests and range. 

The quality of the performances fully matches that of the music. Yehuda Hanani, a champion of Martin and, I suspect, the catalyst behind this recording, plays with heart, mind and a big, romantic tone that is suited to this music. Hanani is joined in the sonata, nocturne, and variations by the outstanding Walter Ponce, who plays with intelligence and passion. In Ropa Vieja, Hanani is joined by accordionist William Schimmel and percussionist Arti Dixson, who deliver sensitive and idiomatic performances. The recording was made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is of uniformly excellent quality. I enjoyed this disc a great deal, and I will be returning to it often. Radu A. Lelutiu