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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Polyptyque, for Violin and two small string orchestras.
Etudes for String Orchestra.
Sonata da Chiesa
, for viola and string orchestra.
Munich Chamber Orchestra/Hans Stadlmair; Gottfried Schneider, violin; J Reiber, viola d'amore.
 £12.95  AmazonUK £8.99 AmazonUS  $6.97 Amazon recommendations

An outstanding CD: despite limited patience for all-strings music, it has bowled me right over.

Most of this music is new to me, but the composer is not. For a few years now I've been a firm fan of Frank Martin (it rhymes! ... he's Swiss): of his Petite Symphonie Concertante, the concertos for Cello, Violin and Harpsichord, his Ballade for Piano and Orchestra, the Concerto for 7 Winds, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra, the Piano Concertos, and much more.

This disk may come to rank for me beside my "discovery" last year of the CD with Shostakovich's first Violin and Cello Concertos, featuring Oistrakh and Rostropovich (a Sony Masterworks Heritage re-release of premiere performances from the 50s). Music of a radically different kind, but my favourite CD release of 1999.

This one I consider my 'big find' disk of 2000. Let me tell you why:

The major work on this release is the Polyptyque, a highly unusual composition for violin and two small string orchestras, the result of a commission by Yehudi Menuhin and Edmond de Stoutz for a violin concerto. Martin didn't feel he had one "in" him, but after seeing a polyptych of religious tableaux, he was inspired to produce this work. After hearing it, one does not lament that he didn't attempt a second standard VC to follow his first foray in the genre.

Martin composed the 25-minute-long Polyptyque in 1974, the last year of his life. It consists of six movements or Images, each one corresponding to an icon in a sequence of six wooden panels depicting events in the life of Jesus. These Images are: Image des Rameaux (Palm Sunday); Image de la chambre haute (The Last Supper); Judas; Gethsemani; ...du Jugement; and la glorification.

Martin's big challenge, as I see it, is to devise some symmetry between these parts to strike some coherent, balanced whole; at the same time, he must render music to suit each icon or motif. That is, having turned his back on the fast-slow-fast or other concertante structures, Martin must provide something that coalesces artistically. To ratchet up the challenge even higher, its parts must somehow musically reflect some of those defining moments for the West when God presumably lived incarnate. Ambitious, or what?

Martin's striking use of the two string orchestras in this work rates with the contrapuntal work of his 'Mass for two 4-part choirs.'

The CD's liner notes in German, English and French are brief and illuminating, but flawed: Polyptyque is consistently misspelled Polyptique, for instance, and the four Etudes are not named. Martin's own comments on this work are cited, and they indicate that he's not trying to depict the Images as much as to evoke feelings appropriate to each scene. Indeed, all six parts of the work cover a wide range of moods and emotions: dynamic, rhythmic, almost desperate (the diabolical third Image); delicate, often solo playing that's meditative, sometimes almost brooding (the second, fourth and sixth); and the driving and fiery extremes of the violin's range (the fifth Image, with its mounting inevitability).

Representing Jesus, Martin's violin weaves exquisite harmonic interplays, echoes and inversions against both string groups throughout the Polyptyque. In the first Image, the calm Christ is convincingly evoked amid busy crowds: seemingly bustling and inquisitive at first, at the violin's gentle prompting the throngs build towards a satisfying musical convergence. The closing hymn of praise is subtle and engaging, but it does not quite connect for me. My feeling is that something more virtuosic than Schneider's subdued approach is required. For now, the only other interpretation on disk is Menuhin's, on his Introuvables set, which I find no more satisfying.

This may raise a few eyebrows, but I'd wish for a version by that devil-may-care showman, Jascha Heifetz. For now, this work for me is in much the same vein as a review of Haydn's 'Creation' I once delighted to read: something to the effect that the performance was 'Every bit as wonderful as the event it purports to depict.' That is, Martin may well have set for himself an impossible challenge and failed-though he does so quite gloriously.

It would be overly restrictive to limit one's grasp of this work through the program of icons-as Martin's own words suggest. That is, this music also stands independent of the rich context that the polyptych Images provide. The use of string groups and solo violin results in a lighter overall texture than one finds in a conventional concerto. Also, the brevity of each Image-ranging in length from just over two to almost six minutes each-also prevents this work from achieving the grandeur and drama one normally expects from a concerto. All the same, this is no mere suite for strings, but a composition of great power well beyond what one might expect of either its unusual shape or its ensemble. Framed within purely musical terms, it is ravishing. Despite its reined-in last Image, Martin's Polyptyque shines through as a 20th century masterpiece.

The Etudes for String Orchestra (1955-56), is a more conventional composition, yet outstanding all the same. It is another tour de force for Martin's remarkable gift for counterpoint, and it includes a felicitous pizzicato movement that can comfortably keep company with Bartok's, Korngold's and Ravel's most brilliant such achievements. The Etudes is the only work on this CD with which I was already familiar; I have a copy of Ansermet's version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, on London/Decca (448264-2)-a fine double set, by the way, essential to any Martin fan if only for its classic version of the Violin Concerto, featuring Wolfgang Schneiderhan.

From the Overture onwards, Ansermet seems to have grander ambitions for the Etudes than Stadlmair. His vision is larger-boned, somehow more massive while briefer overall, always showing a clear sense of which musical lines to favour, and just when, to bring out Martin's counterpoint. This is especially true in the second, 'Pour le pizzicato' movement, whose elaborate rhythmic fluctuations are nuanced to far greater advantage. Ansermet also very effectively teases out the movement's jazzy rhythms-which can also be found, in richer octane, in Martin's great Cello Concerto of 1965-66.

Stadlmair's players may highlight more of this movement's mischief, but at the expense of Martin's elaborate harmonic interplays, which reach far beyond wit and smoothness. Ansermet also reveals a dramatic depth that Stadlmair all but glosses over-very clearly in the third movement, 'Pour l'expression et le sostenuto,' and in the Overture. All told, Ansermet's vibrant rendering of the Etudes is to be preferred over Stadlmair's, whose take is certainly graceful and delicate, yet sounds occasionally blurred and thin by comparison.

The Sonata da Chiesa, for viola and string orchestra, is a 1938 piece for viola d'amore that Martin subsequently arranged for orchestral accompaniment. This interpretation is indeed da Chiesa: it clearly is of and belongs in Church. (I gather there is a third version for flute and organ, on the BIS label.)

This is a meditative work of great intensity, and considerable beauty-far more than one would expect from a 15-minute sonata. Compared to the eventful Etudes, there's seemingly not a lot going on: the economy of its outer movements is severe, almost extreme. Especially after the Etudes, again, it's a composition of deep tranquillity. There's certainly no cheap display to catch one's attention and captivate us immediately.

While Martin never could be cheap, the second and third movements of the Sonata come close to 'attention-getting.' The second movement, 'Allegro alla Francesca,' is vaguely akin to a musical amble through the woods ...a hansom carriage ride, mind you: Martin always being consummately elegant. But even this pleasant canter shifts with Musette, the third movement, into a sort of falsetto reverie, turning inward again into music more imagined and kaleidoscopic than outwardly scenic. Soon, both musical lines are placed in a gentle, alternating tension which Martin leaves delightfully unresolved.

The fourth movement is a return to the serenity of the first. That opening Andante had set a lyrical mood, cast mainly by the viola's musings while the background strings played long, mostly dark notes, delivered in closing as a nearly static wall of sound. Now, as the Sonata winds down, we are taken back to an Adagio of great intensity, something ineffable one can only surmise as Martin's attempt, as in the Polyptych, to give musical shape to his religiosity. Assisted by a second gifted soloist, the pretty-nearly-anonymous violist J.Reiber, Stadlmair's Munich Chamber Orchestra comes into its own with this piece: gentle and meditative, with straightforward harmonies and long, sunny, lyrical moments that briefly pierce through the mists. The Sonata da Chiesa is brought to one of the surest resolutions, for me, since Bartok's 'Concerto for 2 pianos'-though, to be sure, one that's far more understated.

This CD confirms an impression of Martin as a composer of utmost grace and artistry. His adventures in counterpoint are nothing short of stunning-if that's not too sharp a depiction for this intense but refined master. It prompted me to revisit similar works: his Ballade for Cello and Small Orchestra, the Ballade for Viola, Wind, Harp, Harpsichord and Percussion, and others; works that merely strengthened that impression.

The program of this CD has also urged me to reconsider my views: Martin's compositions for strings never even approach the dull-and so yes I can, after all, live with a whole hour of music for strings!

Martin's sense of harmony and counterpoint stand up to comparison with the best. In a different vein, Yehudi Menuhin himself (whose own version I'd love to hear) says that "When I play the "Polyptyque" by Frank Martin I feel the same responsibility, the same exaltation as when I play Bach's 'Chaconne.'"

In the symmetry of his musical architecture, I'd liken Martin to Ravel and Mozart. Although in the economy of his means he might often be more restrained than either of them, his musical choices are as carefully considered. He's certainly their match in the purity of his lines: while there is no lack of emotion, nowhere in his music, for good or ill, do we find a visceral rough edge.

While this is not at all difficult or challenging music, I would not especially urge this CD on listeners who are new to Martin: grace and intensity only cover one end of his rich musical spectrum. I'd start with the Ballade for Piano and Orchestra, or his Petite Symphonie Concertante ...with the promise of plenty more gems to come with the Cello Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and the other works mentioned in opening.

For the rest of us, this CD is definitely one to snap up and savour.

Bert Bailey

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