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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Violin Concerto (1951) [29.21]
Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion and strings (1949) [20.30]
Danse de la peur (1936) [14.16]
Michael Erxleben (violin), Adrienne Soos and Ivo Haag (piano duo)
Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur/Jac van Steen
rec. 23 October 2003 (Concerto for seven wind instruments); 15-17 January 2004 (Violin Concerto, Danse), Stadthaus, Winterthur. DDD. SACD
MDG 601 1280-2 [64.25]

The Erxleben recording of the Violin Concerto is the second version I have heard recently. The first was on Louisville First Edition FECD-0020 on which Paul Kling played the work with the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney. That was a 1963 recording coupled with another Louisville special: Martin’s Cello Concerto recorded by Steven Kates in 1973. Both are in analogue stereo. There is no competition in recording quality so far as the Violin Concerto is concerned but Erxleben leans less heavily than Kling on the work’s romantic-impressionist credentials. It is not that he is not lyrical. In the first movement the violin’s ‘speaking voice’ is intensely lyrical. However the overall effect is less impressionistic ... more objective and emotionally cool than in the Kling version. Kling and Whitney bring out the softer Ravelian qualities. Erxleben makes the concerto more of a work of the 20th century - closer to Rawsthorne than Ravel. The sound is sumptuous on this MDG SACD; it opens up the textures in a way that the Louisville disc could not hope to do - vivid and closely recorded as it is.

The Concerto for seven wind instruments was premiered by the Musical Society of Bern conducted by Luc Balmer on 25 October 1949. It is a cooler and more ascetic work than the Violin Concerto although echoes of Ravel can be heard as in 3:50 in the first movement. The solo lines are often given syncopated material which has a mildly caustic edge and which reminded me of Weill. The second movement projects a long lyrical melody for the violins over a ticking ostinato reminiscent of Haydn’s Clock. The capricious clarinet in the finale recalls the wild flights of that instrument in the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto and of the flute in the Nielsen Flute Concerto. The knockabout trumpet line will remind most listeners of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1. The sound from this disc is staggering, I must say; listen to the percussion in the finale. And I was listening to the orthodox CD track not the SACD multi-channel.

The Danse de la peur pre-dates Le Vin Herbé and is all that survives of a ballet project for Zurich Ballet. It was premiered in Geneva on 28 June 1944 with Madeleine and Dinu Lipatti who had just arrived as exiles from Romania. It is a sombre work, not without dynamism, predictably glum, with some 12-tone flavour fresh from Martin’s studies with Schoenberg. The two pianos clamour in jazzy protest and the bass-emphatic percussion thud, grunt and grumble. It’s fascinating and subdued - proclaiming the composer as a confidently awkward Old Testament cuss even at the age of 46. There is plenty of ruthless syncopated work for the two pianos played here with snarl and ‘rock and roll’ thunder. No jokes and no smiles in this piece - just concentrated foreboding. Vaughan Williams rejected war-visionary status for his Fourth Symphony. Would Martin have taken the same line with this work written during the second half of the 1930s? It’s all a little like Liszt’s Totentanz. This is not its first recording. It was included on Sebastian Benda’s ASV CD of the Martin complete music for piano and orchestra (CD DCA 1082). There the other pianist there was Paul Badura-Skoda. The ASV interpretation does not have quite the ruthless cut and thrust that stalks and blasts its way through MDG’s recording.

As usual with MDG the booklet is a model of clarity in what it says and in its layout and typography.

Three concentrated works: an aptly unsmiling and mercilessly serious Danse de la peur, a cool yet clear Concerto for seven wind instruments and from Erxleben a Violin Concerto that manages to be both intensely lyrical and objective.

Rob Barnett

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