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Duo No. 2 for violin and cello, H371 (1958) [12:08]
Sonata for flute, violin and piano, H254 (1937) [17:36]
Trio for flute, cello and piano, H300 (1944) [19:25]
Bergerettes - five pieces for violin, cello and piano, H275
Artemiss Piano Trio; Zofie Vokalkova (flute)
rec. The North Czech Philharmonic, Teplice Hall, 2009.
ARCODIVA UP 0126-2 131 [70:19]
Bohuslav Martinu was such a prolific composer that even a well upholstered collection of recordings is inevitably going to have many gaps. I hunted high and low for comparisons for some of these pieces on CD, but have come to the conclusion that my Martinu collection isn’t as well filled as I had thought. The Bergerettes are well known, and the trio H300 is one of Martinu’s strongest chamber compositions. Rummaging through my old Supraphon LPs I found most of the repertoire well represented with ensembles including Czech grandees such as flautist Jirí Válek and pianist Josef Hála, and numerous versions are in fact to be found in the current CD catalogues. This new programme is superbly played by the rather coyly named Artemiss Trio, the cover photo of the ensemble looking at a glance like an quadruple portrait of the same person: they’ve clearly been ‘got at’ by the same makeup artist - the cast of something by Agatha Christie. The recording is marvellously detailed and immediate, but even more importantly the programme is one conceived for variety of colour, each piece with its own subtly differing palette and making for a lively and highly effective listening experience.
Martinu was a violinist himself, and also relished the timbre and expressive potential of the cello. The Duo for Violin and Violoncello is as one might expect therefore a highly inventive work. In three compact movements, both parts very much have equal billing, and engage in eloquent and intense conversation. This is typical Martinu, filled with restless rhetorical gesture and immediacy of communication, so it comes as something of a surprise to discover that this is one of his final works. There is nothing valedictory in the energy of the outer movements, and while the central Adagio is expressive and poignant the composer’s gaze is more towards the lyricism of his homeland rather than in a search of the inner soul or a view into the timeless abyss of mortality.
The Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano takes us back to the 1930s, where the jazzy bustle of Paris and the spirit of neo-classicism was alive in Martinu’s consciousness. The piece was written for another hero to all intelligent musicians, the great flautist Marcel Moyse, whose trio with his daughter-in-law and pianist son Louis performed widely and with much success. The Moyse and Martinu family became good friends at the time, Martinu’s dressmaker wife Charlotte Quennehen working full time to keep a roof over their heads, and only too glad for them both to spend a summer at the flautist’s summer home in the village of St. Amour. Again, compact in spirit and filled with rhythmic verve and a wild sense of abandon and joie de vivre, there are always moments of intense expressiveness and pastorale-like simplicity in this piece. The elegantly sparing Adagio second movement is both a timeless statement, while breathing the same air as Poulenc and the gentler moods of Les six. A strange aspect of this piece is the final Moderato, which seems rather tacked on after the finality of the penultimate Allegretto. It's all top drawer music though, and played with utmost conviction.
The Trio for Flute, Violoncello and Piano inhabits a different geographical world. The Martinus escaped to New York from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941, and it was while in a retreat in the Connecticut countryside that he wrote his powerful Symphony No.3, which was followed by this trio. Work on this piece must have been something in the nature of light relief for the composer and was written in a holiday spirit, its outer movements sharing many of the sunny moods of the other works on this disc. Virgil Thomson wrote of the piece that it “is a gem of bright sound and cheerful sentiment. It is tonally perfect, it sounds well, it feels good; it is clearly the work of a fine jewellery maker and it does not sound like other music.” The folk-music rhythms and effects do however reveal Martinu’s underlying homesickness, and the central Adagio is as eloquent an expression of yearning as anything he wrote.
The five pieces of the Bergerettes return to the neo-classical style of the trio H254 and come from the same period, through in 1939 it is possible to interpret the subject and content of the music as a sort of passive act of defiance against the encroaching Nazi menace. The folk character of the music is strongest and more overt here than in any of the other pieces in this programme, and with the title referring to the French for shepherds or shepherdesses this is hardly surprising. This is no Fragonard fluff however. The Andantino/Moderato central movement is another high-grade expression of human emotional depth, both of lows and kicking highs. Elsewhere there are bucket-loads of parallel progressions, rough rhythmic string figuration and plenty of double-stopping which are all Martinu fingerprints, but here these elements are pushed into territories also explored by the likes of Bartók. Remarkably, Martinu never heard the piece performed, and it only received its premiere in 1963.
The musicians of the Artemiss Trio are a superbly integrated and musically unified group, but flautist Zofie Vokálová also fits in like a permanent member of the ensemble. Her tone is crisp and pleasant, and doesn’t weigh the notes with too much vibrato. The ArcoDiva engineers have done a superb job on the recording, which is lucid and transparent, while at the same time communicating all of the expressive heft in the fine playing. This is a recommended disc for all comers: Martinu newbies and connoisseurs alike, including those who have a few of these pieces already dotted throughout their collections, and especially those who savour the finest in chamber music.
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