On September 29th the Pentatone Oxingale Record Label released a recording of Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann’s Cello Concerto featuring the world renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz.

If you have never heard of Thomas De Hartmann, you are not alone; however while he was alive he was considered to be one of the greatest compositional voices of his era. He was respected by all who knew him and his music. Unfortunately and unjustly his music sunk into obscurity after his death in 1956.

This recording of the de Hartmann Cello concerto is truly a revelation and is one of a series of initiatives spearheaded by The Thomas de Hartmann Project, whose main objective is to restore and recover de Hartmann’s place in the classical repertoire.

Thomas de HartmannThomas de Hartmann

The idea of recording Hartmann’s cello concerto was like stepping into a new musical world for Haimovitz as well.  As Haimovitz explains, “I’d never heard of Thomas de Hartmann. I was sitting around during the pandemic when a lot of the concerts were cancelled, and I received a phone call form Efram Marder who is one of the figures spearheading the Thomas de Hartman Project. He invited me to learn the cello concerto and to perhaps record it in Lviv, Ukraine.”

The recording project in Lviv got hijacked by two major road blocks along the way. When plans to record it were starting to get off the ground the pandemic hit, and then once the pandemic restrictions were looking like they were going to ease up Russia invaded Ukraine. The project ended up being cancelled leaving Haimovitz having prepared a miraculous cello concert by a Ukrainian composer that needed to be heard! On a side note, there were plans to record de Hartmann’s Violin Concerto in Russia that were organized by The Thomas de Hartmann foundation.

“It just became very difficult to record in that part of the world. I had an engagement scheduled in Leipzig with the MDR Radio Orchestra and my friend the conductor Dennis Russell Davies. We were supposed to record Schnittke’s First Cello Concerto…I called Dennis up and I said ‘I have this Thomas de Hartmann concerto…it is a little unusual to change repertoire in the last few weeks, but I just wanted to let you know that we would love to somehow record this piece.’ He took it to the orchestra and the orchestra unanimously wanted to show their solidarity with Ukraine, and we ended up recording de Hartman’s concerto,” explains Haimovitz.

The concerto was written in 1935 on a grand scale and was very much Hartmann’s reaction to what was going on in Europe at the time. One of the things de Hartmann wanted to do was to link the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany to his own recollections of local Jewish folk musicians. De Hartmann was not Jewish but was very much inspired by Jewish song and folklore.

“The slow movement to me is one of the great Jewish pieces. When I recorded the piece I thought Thomas de Hartmann was Jewish, but then I recently learned…no he is not Jewish,” says Haimovitz. Having said that Haimovitz goes on to state that “I just think his tribute to the cantorial style is every bit as important and beautiful as say Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. It’s a really beautiful piece.”

The concerto takes these elements of Jewish and Eastern European folk traditions and fuses them with elements of lush romanticism and textures that could just as easily come out of a 1930s or 40s movie theatre.

Thomas de Hartmann was educated at the Moscow Conservatory but after the 1917 Russian Revolution he moved to France where he ended up composing more than 50 film scores. This sweeping grandeur from film music can easily be heard in the first movement of the concerto.

This is quite simply a cello concerto that has languished in obscurity for far too long and deserves to be heard more on the concert stage, it is an earthed gem in the cello literature. As Haimovitz states, “The major concertos get programmed again and again…and rightly so. Sometimes you discover these pieces that are just every bit as important and deserve their place in the concert hall.”

Thanks to the hard work of the Thomas de Hartmann Project and Matt Haimovitz, this is a concerto that is sure to be heard more and more on the concert platform. It is absolutely stunning!