Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra (1935) [18.40]*
Chamber music No 1 Les fêtes nocturnes (1959) [20.04]
Les rondes (1930) [15.35]+
La revue de cuisine, complete ballet (ed. Christopher Hogwood) (1927) [20.42]
Robert Hill (harpsichord);
Holst Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon (piano)+
rec. Schlossbergsaal, SWR Radio, Freiburg, 25-26 October 2009
NAXOS 8.572485 [75.14]
This compilation brings together a number of scores by Martinů from various stages of his career right up to the final year of his life. It is slightly odd to find an ensemble based in Freiburg named after the English composer Gustav Holst - the Holst Singers and the Holst Orchestra are very definitely British organisations - but I suppose we should regard it with no more surprise than British ensembles from the Amadeus Quartet onwards adopting their names from continental composers. It is also somewhat surprising to find that the complete ballet score of La revue de cuisine, highly successful in its form as a suite, was reconstructed from a score in the Paul Sacher archives in Basle by Christopher Hogwood whose reputation largely rests on his work as an early music specialist. It is gratifying to see musicians ‘cross-pollinating’ in this way. Not that Hogwood is not already steeped in the Martinů idiom as a conductor: four volumes on Hyperion: review; review; review; review; one on Arte Nova and several on Supraphon review review.
The Harpsichord Concerto, like contemporaneous works by Falla and Martin, was written with a ‘big’ harpsichord sound in mind, the type of instrument played by Wanda Landowska in the 1930s, rather than more modern ‘period’ reconstructions. What Robert Hill plays here, however, sounds more like a smaller baroque instrument which has been brought forward into the recorded balance and amplified. This enables the instrument to be clearly heard, but the closeness of the sound does not give the recording much sense of space; the piano which also features in the score sounds much more naturally balanced. For this concerto the best performance probably comes from Zuzana Ruzičková on an old 1969 Supraphon recording where a rather grand-sounding harpsichord is better matched with the orchestra in a more naturally balanced acoustic; but one does note that Martinů does specify a “small orchestra” - really an enlarged chamber ensemble - and the Holst Sinfonietta are probably closer to the scale he had in mind.
The even smaller-scale Fêtes nocturnes are given a more natural acoustic in the performance here, and like many of the works Martinů wrote towards the end of his life they make a charming impression. As the booklet note observes, these are gentle and atmospheric pieces in which the composer looks back to the music of his Czech youth, and it is noteworthy as the only piece of chamber music by Martinů which employs the harp.
For the last two works on this CD we go back to Martinů’s earlier years when jazz was a strong influence on his music. Les rondes at the beginning shows a close affinity in style with Stravinsky’s The soldier’s tale but later Janáček also comes to mind. One is not altogether surprised to find that Martinů originally entitled the piece Moravian Dances. The sound of these dances is much more astringent than Janáček's earlier work of that title; and despite its upbeat surface Les rondes is not really a very loveable score, with the exception of the meditative Andantino with its prominent cor anglais solo.
La revue de cuisine, on the other hand, is a real charmer. The plot is ridiculously silly even by Martinů’s often indiscriminate standards, but it clearly inspired him and he produced some highly entertaining music. Hogwood’s reconstruction adds only some five minutes of music which were not included in the suite, but they are well worth hearing. The one substantial unfamiliar movement is the Marche funèbre which leaves one at a loss to decide why Martinů decided to exclude it from his suite; the whole score fits together like a nicely tailored glove. The performances both here and in Les rondes are excellent, with just the right sort of jazzy sleaziness; and the recording acoustic is both clear and atmospheric. A Supraphon recording of the complete score conducted by Christopher Hogwood is rather plusher but the jazz elements are less indulged; some may prefer the more Gershwin-like overtones of his reading, but the Naxos sound is perhaps more authentically 1920s.
One minor point of accuracy: in his booklet note Klaus Simon states that the Tango from La revue de cuisine is a “magnificent parody of Ravel’s Boléro.” It would have been difficult for Martinů to parody a work that was not produced until a year later. Maybe it was just something that was in the air at the time.
Three of the same works included on this CD - excluding the Harpsichord Concerto - are also available on a Kontrapunkt CD from the Danish Chamber Players, but I have not heard this and in any event La revue de cuisine ballet is given there not at full length but only in its form as a suite. Otherwise this Naxos compilation has the field pretty much to itself - there are alternative versions of all the works here available, but none containing all the pieces. Well worth exploration.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Well worth exploration.