Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, H.246 (1935) [18:40]
Chamber Music No. 1 Les fÍtes nocturnes, H.376 (1959) [20:04]
Les rondes, H.200 (1930) [15:35]
La revue de cuisine: Ballet du Jazz, H.161 (complete) (1927) [20:42]
Robert Hill (harpsichord) (Concerto); Klaus Simon (piano) (Les rondes)
Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon
rec. Schlossbergsaal des SWR Studio, Freiburg, Germany, 25-26 October 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572485 [75:14]
It is curious that it took so long to issue this most delightful collection of Martinu works for chamber orchestra. After all, they were recorded in 2009, and there is not a dud among the twenty-two tracks. Martinu excelled in these small-scale works to a greater degree, I would say, than in the larger forms such as the symphonies. The program here is really varied and contains pieces from both ends of his career. The best known of these is surely the ballet, La revue de cuisine, except here for the first time we get the whole ballet instead of the usual four selections: Prologue, Tango, Charleston and Finale. This adds only an extra six minutes or so, but every one of them is delicious. Once heard in its entirety, the shorter suite will never seem adequate again. According to Klaus Simon, who not only conducts and plays piano on the CD but also provides the detailed notes, the complete score languished in the archive of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle, Switzerland. A reconstruction of the original was prepared and edited by Christopher Hogwood, who has specialized in Martinuís music as well as that of earlier eras, in collaboration with Aleö Brezina and the Bohuslav Martinu Institute. Members of the Holst-Sinfonietta, which despite its name is a Freiburg-based ensemble, founded in 1996 by Klaus Simon with players from South Germany, perform the work to the manner born. It is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano, violin and cello. The various soloists are superb throughout. Simon in his notes mentions the similarity of a theme in the Tango to Ravelís Bolero, even going so far as to call it a ďmagnificent parodyĒ. The only problem is that Martinuís work pre-dates Ravel, though the likeness is there for all to hear! Undoubtedly itís just a mere coincidence.
The other works are equally attractive. The disc begins with one of Martinuís neo-baroque concertos, this one for harpsichord with other solo instruments in the manner of a concerto grosso. Yet the harpsichord is the dominant voice and at times reminds one of Bachís keyboard concertos. It is a most tuneful and infectious piece and receives a fine performance from harpsichordist Robert Hill and the other musicians. The concerto is followed by one of the composerís last works, the Chamber Music No. 1 for clarinet, harp, piano and string trio. It is more astringent than usual for Martinu and has rather dense textures which contrast with more folk-like passages in the first movement that have something of Coplandís Appalachian Spring about them, before returning to the dissonant themes that begin the movement. The second movement, marked Andante moderato, is gentler and more atmospheric, evoking the nocturne part of the subtitle. Near the start of the third movement there is a clarinet melody that pre-echoes a theme in John Adamsí Gnarly Buttons clarinet concerto. After that the tempo picks up and is more typical of Martinu in his happy, consonant mode, before the Adams-like clarinet makes its reappearance. The work ends on a light-hearted, positive note.
The third work on the CD may just be the most interesting and unusual of all. As Simon notes, Les rondes refers to the ďround dances of the Russian chorovodĒ. He sees more of a similarity to JanŠcek than in other compositions of Martinu. To me, though, the work is much closer to the neo-classical Stravinsky with touches of French humor ŗ la Milhaud or Poulenc. It is scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and two violins. The way the violins interact with the trumpet and clarinet recalls Stravinskyís Líhistoire du soldat. The work is in six movements. In the second movement, Poco andantino, there is a phrase initially on oboe and then on the trumpet (starting at 2:40). The latter is a near quotation of the trumpet theme close to the beginning of the third movement in JanŠcekís Capriccio. Itís then accompanied by a Petrushka-like squeezebox rhythm that serves as an underpinning. Les rondes is a delightful piece delectably performed here with its elements of jazz, Stravinskian dance rhythms and bi-tonality familiar from Milhaud. Yet, it all comes out in the end sounding like Martinu. It would make a fine addition to a chamber music concert and should be much better known.
The performances here are first rate as is the vibrant recorded sound. The instrumentalists all receive due recognition in the notes and it would be churlish of me to single out any one of them ó such is the excellence of the ensemble. Furthermore, Klaus Simon clearly has the measure of Martinuís music. This generously filled disc will appeal to all lovers of Martinuís music. I look forward to hearing more from this ensemble in other music as well.

Leslie Wright


A delectable survey of Martinuís music for chamber ensemble.