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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Eight Préludes (1948) [20:52]
Esquisse (1965) [2:51]
Clair de lune (1952) [1:26]
Etude rythmique (1965) [2:04]
Guitare (1933) [6:55]
Fantasie sur des rythmes flamenco (1973) [11:30]
Jean-Leon Cohen (piano)
rec. April-May 2013, Studio Forgotten Records, Rennes

I apologise in advance to anyone who may notice that I have cannibalised my previous review of Martin’s piano music to set the scene for this one.
Though he wrote two piano concertos and a ballade for piano and orchestra – not to mention numerous chamber works in which the piano features prominently – Martin wrote very little for solo piano. Whether this is a puzzle or not, the fact remains that Martin was a fine pianist in his own right and his own recording of the Eight Préludes can currently be found on Jecklin. The Préludes were inspired by Martin’s friendship with – and admiration for – Dinu Lipatti.
The Préludes open sternly with a Grave full of space and questing runs, embrace a quizzically insistent Allegretto with a rather hypnotic drive and expand to the insect-like scamper in the unusual Vivace. The Andantino grazioso’s more elliptical cast would have been well suited to Lipatti’s penetrating sense of depth, though once again Martin ensures that there’s a real sense of motion and movement; this is the spirit that animates the whole cycle. However it’s the penultimate Lento for which Martin reserves the greatest weight, a span of rather unsettled writing reaching a peak of abstract tension. All this is swept away by the driving high spirits of the Vivace finale.
Esquisse is a competition piece and explores timbral variety in its outer sections which contrast with the driving rhythm of the central panel. Clair de lune was Martin’s contribution to an album for the young; it’s a delightful, tiny sliver. The Etude rythmique dates from 1965 and it’s barely longer than Clair de lune, lasting just two minutes but it evokes complex rhythmic patterns in a very compressed and accessible canvas. Guitare was one of a number of pieces submitted to, and unacknowledged, by Segovia. It also exists in this version for piano as well as for orchestra. It’s difficult to see what Segovia disliked in it, though his slush pile was notoriously big; there are plenty of heady Spanish moments and rhythms, there’s a tight little 'aria antiche' in the second movement air, and plenty of drive and knotty rhythm – as well a certain aloof inflexion – in the brief finale (Comme une gigue). The Fantasie sur des rythmes flamenco was designed to be danced to – in fact by Martin’s daughter Teresa – and was requested by Paul Badura-Skoda. Running through it, slower and faster, is the rumba – though its characteristic rhythms are never blatantly evoked. The most excitement is concentrated in those moments when Martin unleashes a quasi-boogie assault of tremendous and unstoppable brio.
Apart from the Préludes it’s still the case that very little of Martin’s solo or duo piano music is in the catalogues. One can find the Préludes, Guitarre and Fantasie sur des rhythms flamenco played by Klaus Sticken on Thorofon CTH 2478 in a recording coupled with Honegger’s piano music – recommended despite the rather chilly studio acoustic. ABC Classics [476 2601] has a double set, the object of my previous review, which couples the works for solo and two-pianos played by Julie Adam, joined by Christine Logan in the two-piano works. I gave it a good welcome but complained a little about the surprisingly clangy and diffuse recording quality. In the case of Jean-Leon Cohen’s recording I have to note the very dry uncushioned small-room acoustic – which seems to be diametrically the opposite problem to ABC’s. In other respects it’s Cohen, who knew Martin, who proves the more vivid interpreter. More staccato-like and gaunt in the Préludes his basic pulse is almost invariably faster. His more concentrated take on the melancholy of the Lento (No.7) seems to me more stylistically apt whilst in No.8 his athletic, darting and playful pianism is just right. If only the recording were not so brittle and hemmed in. There’s more incision and tang to his Guitare and despite the dead acoustic more evocative phrasing too. Unsurprisingly he is a full two minutes quicker than Adam in the Fantasie sur des rythmes flamenco and is rhythmically more colourful.
Forgotten Records provides a good note, but it’s only in French and whilst Cohen is an excellent player of Martin the recording is not sympathetic. Adam is a warm but less characterful interpreter – but you will get the attractive two-piano works, although her recording inflates the sound, with consequent lack of clarity. Tricky.
Jonathan Woolf