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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Polyptyque – Six images de la Passione du Christ (1973) [24:19]
Maria-Triptychon (1967/8) [20:46]
Passacaille (1944/67) [12:36]
Muriel Cantoreggi (violin) (Polyptique, Maria-Triptychon)
Juliane Banse (soprano) (Maria-Triptychon)
German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Christoph Poppen
rec. February, June 2006, Funkhaus Halberg, Saarbrücken
ECM 2015 (173 3930) [57:57]
Experience Classicsonline

‘Playfulness and poignancy’ is an apt summing up of the music of Frank Martin. Like Martinů, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Hartmann and a numerous other 20th century composers who largely stuck to a tonal basis for their composition, Martin’s work is instantly recognisable for its personal, humanist character, even when tackling huge biblical subjects such as in Polyptyque. This was one of Martin’s last works, each of the six movements representing an ‘image’ from the story of Christ’s Passion. This is not only represented in the titles of the movements, but in the symmetry of the piece’s design as a whole. As you might expect from such a theme, serenity and tenderly emotional music is mixed with the violence of something like the Image of Judas in the third movement. The technically demanding solo violin part is taken magnificently by Muriel Cantoreggi, wondrously expressive in the extended solo of the Image of Gethsemane, where the accompaniment from the string orchestra is restricted to just a few gentle brushstrokes of sound, building to a final climax the equal of any religious ecstasy by Messiaen. Readers who love ‘The Lark Ascending’ and who still doubt that they might feel any association with this music should have a listen to the final Image de la Glorification and see if similar senses aren’t touched.
Maria-Triptychon presents another set of religious images, but with Juliane Banse’s richly expressive soprano forming a duet with the solo violin the work presents a different, more directly dramatic picture. The first two movements take place at the Annunciation, with May’s vision of the angel, followed by her exultant outburst of praise. The third and final movement is a Stabat mater, opening with unexpected funereal astringency, an upward moving motif represents lugubrious and later dramatic and impassioned finality. It’s a shame that the texts used are not included in the booklet notes, but as a performance and recording this is one for 5 stars and multiple rosettes. Juliane Banse’s darker vocal colour suits this music perfectly, and the whole piece has a magnetically disturbing impact.
The Passacaglia also exists as a version for organ, and has one of those eternally not-quite resolving harmonic progressions which I personally need to pluck off the shelf now and again for a quick inspirational ‘fix’. The orchestral version of course offers more scope for variety in colouration, and the way which Christoph Poppen and his orchestra allow the music space to breathe and evolve fully satisfies the follicle test – in fact, if you are susceptible to goose-pimples with this kind of music, all your hair may actually fall out.
Bringing together artists whose artistic sympathies are unified by numerous common factors has worked its magic for ECM on this disc. Muriel Cantoreggi is a former pupil of Christoph Poppen’s, and Juliane Banse has worked for ECM before alongside Hungarian violinist András Keller with a multiple prize-winning rendering of György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragmente”. Christoph Poppen will be known to ECM fans as the former director of the Munich Chamber orchestra, and this is the first time leads his “new” orchestra, the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken/Kaiserslautern, an ensemble which resulted from the merger of two well-respected radio orchestras in the West of Germany in 2007. Both Christoph Poppen and I agree that Frank Martin is “an outstanding and yet unjustly neglected composer”, and if there is a recording which should project his name into the front rank of 20th century composers then this could well be it.
There are a few other recordings of these works around of course. The Maria-Triptychon also has a powerful advocate with Linda Russel and the LPO on Chandos. Comparing the Polyptyque with another fine recording; Marieke Blankestijn with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Thierry Fischer on Deutsche Grammophon, I find Muriel Cantoreggi’s solo to have far more emotional impact, and the German Radio Philharmonic also more convincing on the whole. The superb ECM recording is certainly set in a more sympathetic acoustic, and is without doubt my first choice out of the two. If your search for new music and fine recordings is for those with that elusive ‘tingle factor’ then this is a must-have. Were I still to be working in a record shop this is one I would be shoving under people’s noses with tiresome regularity.    
Dominy Clements    


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