Bohuslav Martinů's early years were marked
by a combination of Czech folk spirit and French impressionism which
is even more enjoyable for the ears than it sounds. I simply don't understand
how these are first recordings, or how this music is so ignored. Granted,
this doesn't have the rhythmic sharpness or dramatic emotional commitment
of Martinů's later music - the symphonies, for example - and hints
of the composer to come are infrequent, but gosh these pieces are lovely.
We start with a Prelude
from the composer's Parisian maturity,
which in 90 seconds reassures us that the performances are in good hands.
is the composer's second known work, from when
he was 15 or 16; it's a brief, incredibly appealing set of Czech dances
capturing the rustic celebrations of the title. Almost a decade later
we arrive at the work H90, which according to the superb booklet “has
no title page, nor ... any tempo indication”, which suggests an
unusual amount of interpretive freedom for the intrepid performers.
It's a sort of arabesque, with an exotic cor anglais solo and parts
for piano, harp and celesta working in tandem. A bobbing up-and-down
bass drone contributes to the spooky nocturnal atmosphere.
The Nocturne in F sharp minor
includes a very important solo
for viola, and its climax, harmonically complex and powerful as it is,
gives us a premonition of the Martinů who wrote the first two symphonies.
There's also a piano in the orchestra, playing a role much like the
one it does in his later work.
The showcase here, occupying more than half the disc, is the Little
, which is so-called not because of its size (43 minutes!)
but because of its minimal impact as a dramatic work. Václav
Talich rejected the piece because it was too “light”. Light
it is, but the fact that it had only been played complete once before
this disc is mind-boggling. The music all clearly shows Martinů's
genius for orchestration, the tunes are sound, and altogether the piece
should have charmed the socks off audiences. I understand that charming
was not always a desirable goal for a young composer seeking to prove
himself, and that the rejection of this piece played a role in Martinů's
turn towards more sententious music to come, and also that the scherzo
- despite being luxuriously scored, with contrasting sections featuring
winds and strings - is too long for its own good. On the other hand,
if you like Dvořák's Czech Suite
, American Suite
, or Nature's Realm
overture, or if you like Suk's
or Fairy Tale
, you will love the Little Dance
All throughout, the playing of the Sinfonia Varsovia is impressively
committed, and Ian Hobson proves a terrific conductor of this music,
skilfully weaving together the threads of Martinů's impressionism,
Czech heritage and overall genius as a colourist. There's a long and
excellent essay in the booklet by Martinů scholar Michael Crump,
which I enjoyed reading even while not listening.
I feel like saying music that isn't serious scares away listeners and
cheapens its importance. So forget about whether or not this is serious.
It made me happy - it's an hour of sheer aural satisfaction, and it's
downright bizarre that this music isn't better-known. Treat yourself!
See also review by Dominy