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Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Early Orchestral Works, Volume 1
Prelude en forme de scherzo, H181a [1:29]
Untitled orchestral movement, H90 [8:31]
Posviceni (Village Feast), H2 [6:18]
Nocturne in F sharp minor, H91 [8:27]
Little Dance Suite, H123 [42:49]
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson
rec. 19-21 December 2012, Lutoslawski Concert Studio, Polish Radio, Warsaw
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0156 [67:34] 

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. Village Feast 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 Dance Suite, 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, Serenade, or Nature's Realm overture, or if you like Suk's Serenade or Fairy Tale, you will love the Little Dance Suite.
 
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!
 
Brian Reinhart

See also review by Dominy Clements