For those engaged on an exploration of British music, the appearance
of Carlo Martelli’s youthful Second Symphony on the Dutton Epoch
label will have been a significant discovery. Unheard since the nineteen-fifties,
this well-crafted essay is challenging and compares favourably with
contemporary symphonies by Humphrey Searle, John Gardner, Benjamin
Frankel and Malcolm Arnold. These explorers will have also enjoyed
Persiflage and the Jubilee March which fall into the
category of ‘light music’ - albeit finely crafted. Martelli
has made more that 250 arrangements of ‘popular’ songs
for string quartet many of which have been recorded. People will have
heard Carlo Martelli’s music but few will have realised they
have: this composer is (or was) most often heard in his film music.
He is not featured on Classic FM like John Barry and John Williams,
yet he contributed to a number of classic Hammer Horror pictures including
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, the scarily titled It
and Catacombs. In addition to this film music there are a number
of ‘art music’ compositions largely dating from Martelli’s
younger days. Important works include a lost First Symphony, a Serenade
for Strings and an opera.
Paul Conway has provided a detailed biography of the composer in the
liner notes of the present CD as well as a major essay on MusicWeb International.
Nevertheless, come context may help readers of this review.
Carlo Martelli was born in London in 1935 to an Italian father and
an English mother. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William
Lloyd Webber and Bernard Stevens. During the nineteen-fifties he composed
a number of orchestral and chamber works which were performed at a
variety of venues including the Cheltenham Festival and the Royal
Festival Hall. With the advent of William Glock at the BBC, Martelli’s
music was regarded as insufficiently avant-garde and was promptly
ignored. During these years he was a professional violist playing
under the baton of Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells
Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli, wrote a number of film
scores and the ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for
string quartet. This latter music covered the field from 17th
century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received
many broadcasts. During the nineteen-eighties, Martelli composed a
number of ‘light’ pieces including the above mentioned
Persiflage (1983). In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s
Paw and a children’s opera, The Curse of Christopher
Columbus were written.
It is always instructive to hear a composer’s Opus 1. Sometimes,
one is underwhelmed by the banality of structure and effect. However,
in the case of Martelli, even the most critical of listeners must
be impressed. The present Quartet No.1 dates from 1953. Paul Conway
is correct in stating that this is an ‘outstandingly mature
utterance from a 17-year old composer’. Usually, a composer’s
early works tend to be derivative and reflect the achievements of
their contemporaries or teachers. Often various styles can be seen
to be at war with each other. In Martelli’s case it is easy
to spot the influences - Bernard Stevens, the ‘pastoral’
school, Tudor polyphony, the rising tide of atonal and serial music
(this is not a serial work) and Shostakovich. What he has produced
is a synthesis rather than a pastiche. The most important thing is
that this music has withstood the onset of many musical fashions since
it was composed. It provides the listener with interest from the first
bar to the last. This String Quartet is a considerable work in four
finely balanced movements.
Martelli’s Terzetto, Op. 5 for 2 violins and viola was written
in 1956. The general mood of this work is of strong logic, rigorous
development of musical ideas and a sense of urgency. The composer
had recently taken part in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s
eponymous work and had chosen to write an essay for the same instrumental
forces. The Dvorak was composed in 1887 and was in four movements:
Martelli has used three - an ‘allegro moderato’, an ‘andante
cantabile’ and a concluding ‘vivace’. Conway points
out that the composer refers to his recently completed symphony by
quoting a theme in the opening allegro. The middle movement, Andante
Cantabile, is reflective and ultimately sad. The ‘vivace’
is more abandoned and makes use of something approaching a folk-tune.
Yet this is no Morris Men on the village green: Bartók is our
man here - not Cecil Sharp. The Terzetto is a serious work, well planned
and sounding technically accomplished. Dvorak’s exemplar may
be ‘persiflage’: Martelli’s contains deeper things.
The most recent work on this CD is the impressive Prelude and Fugue
for string sextet. The composer has added a second viola and cello
to the standard quartet. I am not sure that I would have appreciated
the original incarnation of this work - it was composed for some 18
violas of the National Youth Orchestra. In 2003 the work was re-cast
in its present form. The music is compelling from the first bar of
the ‘prelude’ through the anything-but-academic fugue
to the recapitulation of a theme from the opening bars. I am not an
expert on ‘fugue’ but is this a ‘double fugue’?
This is beautiful stuff. It is a work that demands to be heard over
and over again.
The final essay on this exploration of Carlo Martelli’s chamber
music is the String Quartet No. 2. This was written in 1954, the year
following his first essay for the medium. Conway suggests that it
is a ‘grittier’ work than the mellow polyphony of the
first exercise. However, the composer has a way of surprising us.
For example the second subject of the opening ‘allegro non troppo’
is a surprisingly lyrical, almost ‘pop’ tune that contrasts
dramatically with the acerbic writing of the opening theme. It is
this balance of styles that characterises the work. I loved the bustling
scherzo. It is less ‘exploratory’ in mood than the opening
movement: it is exciting and makes use of a guitar-like strumming
which gives a ‘Mediterranean’ feel. The ‘trio’
by contrast is quiet and reticent. Fortunately, this mood is soon
broken by the return of the ‘sun-drenched’ tune. The heart
of this Quartet is the Lament, lento, which follows the scherzo. This
is once again lyrical music that is heart-rending in its intensity.
Martelli creates an unusual formal device at the end of this concentrated
music: he repeats the ‘trio’ from the ‘scherzo’
and brings the ‘slow’ movement to a close with a reprise
of the ‘scherzo’ music. It is a satisfying conceit. The
final movement is a set of variations based on an ‘original
theme’ by the composer.
Arthur Jacobs, after a performance of this Quartet at the Wigmore
Hall, described it as 'brimming over with ideas ... a keen grasp of
structure' and 'excellently written for strings'. It is an opinion
that holds well today nearly sixty years on.
Paul Conway has provided a stunning set of liner-notes for this CD.
He introduces Carlo Martelli and gives a detailed, but not dry, description
of each piece. It is an important essay on the composer and his chamber
music. I have not come across the Pavão Quartet; however their
playing on all the pieces presented is superb. They have recorded
Martelli’s music before, with ‘The Great American Song
Book’. I do not possess this CD, but the composer was kind enough
to play excerpts when I last visited him. It is a model of an arranger’s
genius: alas, it is a difficult CD to get hold of. The Pavão
Quartet has been singularly praised for their discs of quartets by
Edward Elgar and Arnold Bax. The Quartet was formed in 1998 at the
Royal Academy of Music.
This CD is an outstanding introduction to Carlo Martelli’s chamber
works. It is music that is well-constructed, always satisfying in
performance, and ultimately moving. I find that these are works that
I can do business with.