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Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Early Orchestral Works - Volume One
Prélude en form de scherzo, H181a (1929, orch. 1930) [1:30]
Orchestral movement, H90 (1913-14) [8:31]
Posvícení, H2 (1907) [6:18]
Nocturna I, H91 (1914-15) [8:28]
Little Dance Suite, H123 (1919) [42:50]
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson
rec. 19-21 December 2012, Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio (S1), Polish Radio, Warsaw

I have been a huge fan of Bohuslav Martinu for as long as I can remember, and count the best of his works as some of the best music the 20th century has to offer. As is well known he was probably too prolific a composer for his own good, and it has to be admitted that there are a few pieces of lower calibre which probably deserve a less prominent place in his oeuvre. What this release shows us is that there are also swathes of early works which have lain unheard for far too long.
As Michael Crump points out in his excellent and extensive booklet notes, Martinu’s turning point came in 1923 when he chose to study abroad. Arriving in Paris he was soon entirely absorbed into the artistic firmament in that city at the time. What these pre-Paris pieces show are a precociously talented composer finding his feet in terms of style, but bearing in mind that he was already writing pieces such as the Czech Rhapsody in 1918 these works are by no means the scratchings of a naïve local. Even the earliest work Posvícení or ‘Village Feast’, only his second known composition, has a folk-style verve which wafts healthy fresh air at us from a past which seems not quite so distant at times. The Orchestral Movement is full of exotic colour, showing a young composer already determined to expand the standard orchestra with harp, celesta and piano. There are some sneaky moments of Gershwin-like bluesy chord sequences, and the influence of Ravel is fairly pervasive in a piece which is a gorgeously rich tapestry of orchestral colour. The Nocturno shares impressionistic characteristics with the Orchestral Movement, with hints of the scrunchy chords of Martinu’s later style glimpsed, parallel chords and that orchestral use of the piano all fingerprints which would forever remain part of his compositional DNA.
The programme opens with the tiny Prélude en form de scherzo which comes closest to the jazz style we know and love from pieces like the Revue de Cuisine. This Prélude was orchestrated from the second of the Eight Preludes for piano so is the only piece here with any degree of familiarity. The Little Dance Suite is not so little at nearly 43 minutes, and the booklet recalls how the piece was rejected at the rehearsal stage by Martinu’s great supporter and friend the great conductor Vaclav Talich. “…I have remembered this sad misadventure often, when I have been tempted to make a composition lighter…” It would be unfair to discount the Little Dance Suite as vapid froth, but there is even less in the opening Tempo di valse to connect it to recognisable Martinu quality than some of the earlier works. There is a laudably open feel to the orchestration and a distinctly Czech feel to some of the melodies, but very little actually happens, and there are some distinctly corny moments as well, mostly involving percussion of one kind or another. The best sections are those in which the Martinu characteristics glow through – dimly it has to be said – but there is no mistaking the luminosity of some of the wind writing in the Scherzo, and the final Allegro à la Polka, while having very little to do with any kind of Polka, does see the composer hitting his stride more consistently, with plenty of eccentric fizz and a fine ‘big tune’ with which to round everything off. This can’t really be considered great art, but these are the kinds of stepping stones which all great artists need to surmount before being able to achieve their best.
The recording for this Toccata release is very good indeed, set in a satisfactory studio acoustic and capturing plenty of that colour and detail which is a requirement even for these early Martinu scores. The orchestral playing is also first class for the most part. If you are embarking on the Martinu voyage of discovery this should however not be your first port of call. I would recommend the remarkable and moving Double Concerto and Field Mass, the First Symphony or indeed any of the other symphonies, or perhaps the Rhapsody-Concerto for this. There are plenty of mature masterpieces to choose from. Once hooked and interested in exploring further, this series of early orchestral works looks like becoming an indispensable part of the Martinu discography, and I applaud its arrival wholeheartedly.
Dominy Clements