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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Petite Symphonie Concertante for Harp, Harpsichord, Piano and Double String Orchestra (1945)
6 Monologues aus ĎJedermanní (1943)
Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and Strings (1949)
Eva Guibentif (harp), Christiane Jaccottet (harpsichord), Ursula Ruttimann (piano)
Jean-Claude Hermenjat (flute), Jerome Capeille (oboe), Michel Westphal (clarinet), Roger Birnstingl (bassoon), Bruno Schneider (horn), Yves Guigou (trombone), Stephen Jeandheur (trumpet), Yves Brustaux (timpani)
Gilles Cachemaille (baritone)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Armin Jordan
Recordings made between December 1989 and June 1991 DDD
WARNER APEX 0927 48687 2

Fans of this superb composer will, like me, want to jump for joy at this release. Here we have, at super budget price, three of Martinís greatest works in first-rate performances and modern, full-bodied digital sound. The recordings were completely new to me and, like many re-releases on the excellent Apex label, plug an important gap in this repertoire. Many Martin enthusiasts will undoubtedly have in their collections the estimable Ansermet recordings from the 50s, latterly on a mid-price Decca Double and certainly worth having as a cross-section of the composerís work. However, some are in mono and generally they do sound their age a little. There is what I hope is an ongoing Martin series from Mathias Bamert on Chandos, though he opts for the orchestral version of the Petite Symphonie, well worth hearing but no way as ear-ticklingly provocative as the original. So this release has the budget field to itself, and itís good to be able to report that the performances really do the pieces justice.

Problems of internal balance tend to plague recordings of the Petite Symphonie. Martinís tricky combination of soloists within a purely string texture seem to fox the engineers (and sometimes the conductor). One of the most impressive things about this disc is the feeling that no one is falsely highlighted (particularly the harpsichord), thus disfiguring the aural landscape. Armin Jordan is an immensely experienced conductor, and his recording team have done him proud in letting the concertante instruments emerge naturally from the orchestra, being Ďfeaturedí but not jumping ridiculously from the speakers. He also paces the score superbly. The dark opening is full of brooding atmosphere, and when the allegro con moto finally bursts in and we hear the soloists, Martinís highly resourceful deployment of this unique combination is suitably startling. Jordan shapes the angular melodic lines, which flirt with serialism, with a real sense of their delicacy as well as their harmonic ingenuity. The beautifully crafted slow movement is atmospheric without lingering, and the vivacious alla marcia finale as buoyant as any baroque concerto grosso by Handel or Corelli.

The ĎJedermanní Monologues is, for me, one of Martinís greatest works and well worthy to stand as one of the finest song cycles of the 20th Century. The cycle was cleverly extracted from Hofmannsthalís play ĎJedermanní (Everyman), itself based on the medieval morality play. The central theme is, broadly speaking, the destructive power of excessive wealth, something that would have fired an artist of Martinís sensibilities. No knowledge of the original play is necessary, and in many ways the mystery and power of these contextless but connected monologues is heightened by experiencing them Ďcoldí. Fischer-Dieskau, who thought highly enough of them to make two recordings, spoke of "an overriding sense of an unnamed horror being faced by a lone, morally lost figure". The scoring, which heightens the mood of foreboding, has a Mahlerian fin-de-siècle feel to it, and Martin uses his characteristically keen ear for sonority to make the most out of relatively modest forces. The final song O ewiger Gott, where the soloists pleads for salvation, is as powerful as anything in Mahler or Britten. It must be said that this cycle has been well served in the catalogue, most recently by David Wilson-Johnson on Chandos, but Gilles Cachemaille is unlikely to disappoint. His full bodied, dramatic baritone realises every nuance in the settings, and he is beautifully partnered by Jordan and the Suisse Romande, who of course have an enviable history and track record in Martinís music.

The Wind Concerto, another beautifully crafted and quirky piece, is also well served on other labels, but again this is as good as Iíve heard, and a lot cheaper. The intriguing scoring instantly gives the piece character, and here Martin flirts with a mixture of atonality and popular style, sometimes spicily astringent but always appealing. There are hints (jibes?) at Ravelís La Valse in the first movement, and more than a passing reference to Haydnís Clock Symphony in the steady tread of the slow movement. All this is hugely enjoyable without ever being banal, and only serves to illustrate Martin's particularly inventive brand of neo-classicism. The featured wind players here are all excellent, and Jordan makes the most of the many contrapuntal dialogues without ever losing the bigger picture.

Martin enthusiasts will want to snap this up anyway, but lovers of central European music in the war-torn years of the last century should also find much to stimulate and enjoy. Booklet details are just about adequate, though full marks again to Apex for providing the invaluable texts and translations. Very highly recommended.

Tony Haywood

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