Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Stín (The Shadow): Ballet in One Act, H102 (1916) [66:37]
Dorota Szczepańska (offstage soprano), Anna Maria Staśkiewicz (violin), Agnieszka Kopacka (piano)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson
rec. December 2015, Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio (S1), Polish Radio, Warsaw

Martinů’s early ballet Stín (The Shadow) calls for modest orchestral forces - including an off-stage soprano - and was intended as part of a balletic trilogy. Noc (Night), written in 1914 for a vast orchestra, was the first of the three. Stín followed but the finale was never composed. He hoped for a performance of Stín at Prague’s National Theatre but the new director Otakar Ostrčíl, himself a fine composer, cast a critical eye over the score appraising at as ‘monotonous and rarely lively in tempo… the orchestration is simple and artless, with excessive use of the piano and celesta…’ concluding that ‘it is not possible to recommend this work for performance at the National Theatre’. He also went to the heart of the matter, balletically speaking, noting that ‘it is physically impossible for anyone to dance this long, or indeed for anyone to watch it.’ Michael Crump, writer of the splendid notes (his Toccata Press book Martinů and the Symphony should be on the shelves of anyone remotely interested in the composer - review) suggests the piece is best appreciated divorced from its dramatic concept – a girl’s mirror image dancing with Death – and listened to as a dance suite but he also cites favourably Harry Halbreich’s view that the work anticipates key features of the composer’s future development.

Indeed, these elements are embedded in Ostrcil’s rejection of the work and all Martinů lovers’ ears will prick up at the reference to the use of piano in particular. Even though Martinů himself referred to it many years later as ‘a weak apprentice work…transitional and haphazard’ this second volume in Toccata’s series devoted to the early orchestral works is of some real interest for the light it sheds on Martinů’s embryonic orchestral development. The seductively charming oboe melody in the Introduction attests to a gift for memorable phraseology, whilst the somewhat operatically Beethovenian vocalise – the girl’s off-stage song – is a decidedly unusual feature. Intimations of later developments come as early as the Girl’s Dance (track 3) with the use of piano in conjunction with harp and rhythmically vivacious use of the percussion – even though the cod-waltz is decidedly not a locus classicus of Martinů’s aesthetic. The little Allegretto is reminiscent of Dvořák or Nebdal, and the waltzing Moderato evokes Richard Strauss – a feature that is to recur in the rather Rosenkavalier-reminiscent piano touches in the Comodo movement (track 10).

The good old school oboe-led lyricism of the Minuet (track 11) takes it close to a slow Slavonic Dance and the solo violinist has a chance to shine in the vaguely Mozartian Trio (track 12) with its folkloric admixture that reaches a rousing pitch. Cribbing from Dukas in the Vivace (track 13) is surely permissible when the results are so genial. However, the main focus in the work falls cumulatively on the relatively long Allegro vivace (track 17), a scene in which the girl collapses but her shadow continues toward the figure of Death. The dramatic power of this scene prefigures that of the operas to come, and the tension generated over a quick span certainly suggests later orchestral writing. His ability to instigate and boil up drama which is then rapidly dissipated, can certainly be found in embryo here, as can the use of the piano in a colouristic, rhythmic or concertante role. There are even tantalising hints of some figures to be encountered years later in Julietta.
However impractical and exasperatingly naďve certain elements of this score may be, it’s fascinating to trace forward-looking developments in Stín. This splendidly buoyant performance, well recorded and expertly performed and directed, is a world premiere recording and offers plenty of opportunities to follow in Martinů’s musical footsteps.

Jonathan Woolf

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