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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Chamber Music Performances from the 1994 Australian Festival of Chamber Music

  • Piano Quartet #1 (1942)
  • Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello & Piano (1947)
  • Sonata #1 for Viola & Piano (1955)
  • String Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas & Cello (1927)
Daniel Adni & Kathryn Selby, pianos
Charmian Gadd, Solomia Soroka & Isabelle van Keulen, violins
Theodore Kuchar & Rainer Moog, violas
Young-Chang Cho & Alexander Ivashkin, cellos
Joel Marangella, oboe
Naxos 8.553916 74:03 DDD
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It is now November going on Christmas. Last May my collection of recordings had two CDs with music by Martinů. Now it numbers 11. I fell in love with Martinů's music after listening to Firkušný play Martinů's Piano Concerti #2-4 on RCA. I listened to the recordings of his symphonies that were already in my collection (by Flor and Thompson) and kept thinking the music was better than what I was hearing. So, I got a copy of the First Symphony on Chandos with Jiří Bĕlohlávek conducting the Czech Philharmonic. I was blown away, again. I had been right, Flor missed the whole point in his recordings of Symphonies 1 and 2.

How to describe the music of Martinů? Well, I've read one comment that describes it as "Debussy meets Stravinsky." That's not a bad description, but not entirely accurate. I read in one of the insert notes, however, that Martinů had admired the work of Roussel and did some studies with the older master. So, I got the two-disc set of the Roussel Symphonies on RCA. I put on Roussel's 3rd. Sure enough, Roussel was the source of Martinů's strange river of music. I have variously described his music as, 'making the music my brain makes when it thinks.' Don't ask me why, but that phrase appears frequently in my notes. Martinů's music is lively, even spastic at times. It is lovely and poignant. It is wild and unpredictable. (Something a lot of new, contemporary music is not.) He has his own "signature" elements, like a swirling within the fabric of a melody. It is best heard in a kind-of "seat-of-the-pants" kind of interpretation. I have heard more "civilized" performances of Martinů, like his Oboe Concerto with Hollinger and Marriner on Philips. That was fascinating because it offered a different facet of Martinů, phrases that come to mind include, 'music is more odd here almost droll'. Then I have heard recordings of Martinů where the conductor seems totally outside the music, most egregious being Flor on RCA.

This latest disc includes my favorite orchestra instrument, the oboe. I also like the bag pipes, but that's another story. It also includes an interesting listen of Martinů's chamber music spanning from 1927 to 1955. I had already heard Naxos' earlier Martinů disc containing the flute trios, my first exposure to Martinů's chamber music, so was anxious to give this one a listen. Yep, his chamber music is as weird as his orchestral music and his concerti.

In case you know nothing about Martinů, he was born in a bell tower in the year of 1890. The town was in what is now the Czech Republic (I think), Policka. One writer has opined (and I cribbed this brief bio from the insert notes in the several CDs I have) that Martinů's first musical education came from those church bells and clock, supplemented by folksongs sung by a retired cobbler who shared their dwellings. He studied for a time at the Conservatoire in Prague but was expelled. Most of his life was spent as an expatriate or exile from this homeland. He left Czechoslovakia in 1923 to go to Paris where he worked with Roussel, whose music Martinů admired. In fact, as I mentioned, if you are seeking a source of Martinů's strange sound world, listen to Roussel's Third Symphony. A possible return to his home country was aborted by Hitler's occupation. Then he had to flee the Nazis again and go to the United States. (All of his symphonies, save one, was written in this country.) In the early 50s he returned to Europe (but not Czechoslovakia because the Communists were now in control). He lived in France and Switzerland until his death in 1959.

The piano quartet's third movement opens with a charming 15 note melody that reminds me of a child riding a tricycle around on a sidewalk, but in this case his father is Wozzek. The rest of the movement is a series of variations, à la jazz style, on that very melody. It is by turns weird, charming, bizarre, charming.

The Quartet for oboe, violin, cello and piano has a Chaplinesque atmosphere to it. Its second movement opens with a pounding piano that fades to a violin lullaby, then to a violin and cello dialogue with a haunting piano in the background which is then joined by the oboe…oh, hell. It's like listening to a kaleidoscope. This is one of the elements of listening to any Martinů work, so much is happening within and without the canvas.

The Sonata for viola and piano opens like a set of études based upon that same 15 note melody that begins the Piano Quintet #1. The variations on that theme are more jazz-like than fugue, but the word fugue did come to mind as I listened. The last movement opens energetically, music flitting about in search of a melody. A haunting piano dialogue emerges and gains energy to become music swirling around a vortex. This is very unsettling music and Bartók came to mind several times. Then it all ebbs back to the tikerliest composition on the disc) The slow movement has a similar stark and spare sense to it. I wrote, "surrealism with a bite". The last movement swings again! This time, though, I swear I hear an Ivesian variation on "Simple Gifts" towards the end. Repeated listenings leaves me feeling as though this sounds like what it is, early Martinů, less coherent more than more chaotic. Promises that were kept.

Sorry if that last paragraph sounds a little gooey or something. Trying to describe a piece of music that is from a composer as unique as Martinů is hard. Mere scores could not contain all the music that is in the notes. If you have not yet explored Martinů's sound world you are in for a treat. I would like to append to this review a list of the Martinů music that is in my collection. The only discs in my collection not recommended are the recordings of the Symphonies by Flor or Thompson. They are listed in the order of how strongly I urge you to jump up and run to the local store to snatch a copy. Of course there is the disc considered in this review, then:

Piano Concerti #2, 3 and 4 "Incantation". Rudolf Firkušný, p. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek. RCA 9026 61934.
Symphony #4. Memorial to Lidice. Field Mass. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Chandos 9138.
Symphony #1. Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Piano and Timpani. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Bĕlohlávek. Chandos 8950.
Symphony #6 [Fantaisies Symphoniques]. Janáček: Sinfonietta. Suk: Fantasticke Scherzo. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Bĕlohlávek. Chandos 8897.
[These symphonies are the best you'll ever hear from anybody. The sound is a killer. Bĕlohlávek was born to conduct this music. Give us the rest!!! The Janáček is also the best I've ever heard and I've heard several.]
Violin Concerto #1 and 2. Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Josef Suk, violin and viola. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaclav Neumann. Supraphon 11 1969-2 011
Oboe Concerto. Heinz Holliger, oboe. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner. Also: Martin: Trois Danses, Petite Complainte, Piece breve. Honegger: Concerto da camera, Petite suite, Antigone. [All works with oboe and other instruments and orchestra].
[I prefer my Martinů more raw and 'by-the-seat-of-the-pants' than what we hear here. Still, it is fascinating to hear what a "civilized" Martinů sounds like. It is still something from the Twilight Zone.]
Flute Trios, Promenades, Madrigal Sonata. Feinstein Ensemble. Naxos 8.553459.
Cello Concerto #1 and 2. Concertino. Raphael Wallfisch, cello. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Chandos 9015.
Cello Sonatas #1-3. János Starker, cello. Rudolf Firkušný, piano. RCA 9026 61220.

So far Martinů has been an unending pleasure of learning to love music. I look forward to adding to my collection and appreciation of a composer I believe will go down as one of the greatest of this century. Then, too, I recall an English Prof who once announced that James Joyce was a thousand years ahead of himself. I thought, "well, let's not bother trying to understand him now, then." Try it, you'll be glad you did.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II