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Henri MARTEAU (1874-1934)
String Quartet No.2, Op.9 (1905) [34:38]
Eight Melodies for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, Op.19 (1915-17) [22:47]
Karine Deshayes (mezzo-soprano)
Isasi Quartet
rec. 2016/17, Oberpfalz, Historischer Reitstadel
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 128-2 [57:38]

Perhaps a brief resume is in order regarding Henri Marteau. French-born he was hugely influential in Berlin for a period from 1908, when he was appointed violin professor at the city’s Royal Academy of Music but the First World War brought humiliation and distress. He was imprisoned, as he’d retained his rank of reserve lieutenant in the French army. For more on him see the splendid Caprice box set devoted to his recordings and legacy that I reviewed a couple of years ago (review) as well as a Sterling disc devoted to his music for clarinet and strings (review).

At the time of the composition of the String Quartet No.2 he was strongly influenced by the figure of Max Reger, with whom Marteau performed extensively. Reger dedicated the Violin Sonata, Op.84 as well as the Concerto Op.101 to Marteau, who was Reger’s great violin apostle until the later arrival of Adolf Busch. The 1905 Quartet is a rewarding work that inaugurates a new element in his compositional writing. It’s harmonically questing with a fluid, rhapsodic but structurally sophisticated skein and features a number of solo cadential moments – especially fine ones for viola - as well as attractive themes. The Scherzo does, it’s true, suggest the long shadow of Beethoven whose quartets Marteau played – Op.131 is doubtless the lodestar in this case – but the sublimated impressionist elements in the slow movement are more suggestive and this quietly elegant, expressive quality avoids all Sturm und Drang. In some ways, though, the finale offers the most revealing measure of Marteau’s compositional development thus far; the polyrhythms and unexpected harmonies are both off-kilter and capriciously destabilising and as a result tremendously enjoyable.

The eight songs for voice and string quartet date from the war years 1915-17, when he was held in protective custody, and they weren’t published until as recently as 2016. It would be interesting to know, given that the score remained in private hands for all that time, quite how it was that Pancho Vladigerov managed to access it to write an arrangement for voice and piano that was never intended for public performance. With strumming guitar-like accompaniments – Marteau makes quite some use of pizzicati here – contrasting with more ‘orchestrally’ expansive unisons there are plenty of chances for fruitful contrast. Then there’s the rather lovely lyricism of the third song with its gauze-like impressionistic accompaniment, the airy fifth setting, the undulating seventh and the generous amplitude of the last song. The French texts are by Sully Prudhomme (a Nobel Prize winner for Literature), who had died in 1907, and François Coppé, whom Marteau knew personally. These nature settings with their occasional Brittany nostalgia must have exerted a particularly strong pull for the incarcerated composer.

With fine notes and a good recording the performances by the Isasi Quartet are dedicated and sympathetic. Karine Deshayes’s ample mezzo sometimes threatens to turn one or two of the songs into operatic arias but in the main she keeps to the right side of the expressive line. This is the first volume in a CPO series and I, for one, want to hear more.

Jonathan Woolf


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