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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Concerto pour les instruments vent et le piano (1924) [11:06]
Concert Suite from Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 (1943) [37:15]
Zwischen Rhone und Rhein (1939) [5:08]
Massachusetts Chamber Players/Matthew Westgate
rec. 2016, Fine Arts Center of Massachusetts, Amherst
MSR CLASSICS MS1602 [53:29]

Frank Martin is a favourite composer of mine. His driving rhythms, pungent harmonies and tone of slight melancholy make for me an irresistible combination. I suppose he will never be a big name composer, but I have been very pleased to see his works creeping back into the repertoire. Recently Welsh National Opera staged his version of the Tristan story, Le Vin Herb, and a few years ago Stephen Cleobury performed his passiontide oratorio Golgotha in Kings College Chapel in Cambridge.

Fortunately he has been well recorded. Ernest Ansermet was one of his first champions, and in recent years Jac van Steen, Daniel Reuss and, above all, Thierry Fischer, have performed and recorded his works, so you can now get virtually everything in a good version and for several of them have a choice. Attention has now turned to works which have been neglected, in some cases since their first performance. Some time ago we got his Cinderella ballet (review). Now this very enterprising disc gives us three more almost forgotten works.

The Concerto pour les instruments vent et le piano should not be confused with the well-known Concerto pour sept instruments vent, timbales, batterie et orchestre cordes of 1949. This is an early work, based on incidental music Martin wrote for a puppet theatre in 1924. He originally wrote for a theatre orchestra of about twenty, but made an arrangement of an Entr’acte for a group of thirteen, which we have here. He later made an arrangement of another movement, a Blues, first for orchestra, then for two pianos. Bastiaan Blomhert made this arrangement, for the same forces as the Entr’acte in 2004. The Entr’acte is a perky number slightly suggestive of Poulenc until we get to a prominent saxophone solo. There is also a touch of orientalising. The Blues suggests Kurt Weill, although this was written before the works which made him famous. There is a splendidly louche trombone solo and other instruments also take solos in turn.

The main work here is the Concert Suite from Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943. The original work was written for Martin’s niece, who was a mime artist, who enlisted her pupils to perform it. It was written for a boys’ choir, a male chorus, a small string orchestra, Basel drums (large, military side drums) and a kind of version of a jazz big band. The story concerns Death, who comes successively to individual people who are mostly going to die. The Dance of Death is of course a traditional theme; this is, rather strangely, a rather gentle version of it, based on murals which were once on a monastery wall in Basel (you can read about them and see reproductions here) and not what you might expect from something written in the middle of a war, to which even neutral Switzerland could not be indifferent. Martin’s niece apparently wanted something in which Death would be presented as tender and empathetic, in contrast to the horrors around her.

This is really an occasional work, and it is not surprising that it has hardly ever been revived. There is, however, a complete recording, made in 2016 by Bastiaan Blomhert, who also arranged the Blues from the Concerto here, on CPO 7779972. Here we have a suite which Blomhert also made, for a band which includes four clarinets, six saxophones of various sizes, trumpets and trombones, guitar and string bass, an assortment of percussion and a piano. There are no singers. There are nine numbers (the original had twentythree), of which the first is a march for drums not actually by Martin. By this time, Martin had developed his mature idiom, but he simplified it for this work. Most of the numbers are brisk, and there are some arresting solos. I was particularly taken with the portrayal of the Young Girl by, of all instruments, a solo trombone. And why not?

Finally we have a march written for the Swiss National Exhibition of 1939. This is a rousing number which nevertheless manages not to be bombastic. Martin did not do bombast. It requires the largest forces of any of the works here. It is good to hear it.

The performances here are full of verve and swagger and the recording is full and clear. The conductor, Matthew Westgate, is Director of Wind Studies at the University of Massachusetts and he formed the ensemble here specifically to play and record these works. He is also undertaking research on Frank Martin. I wonder whether he will publish a book on him – we could do with one. The sleeve note, in English only, gives the composition and players of the ensembles for the works here.

Frank Martin fans will have to decide whether they must have the complete Totentanz, in which case they need Blomhert, or whether they are happy with the suite and get two other rarities thrown in. In any case this a fascinating disc.

Stephen Barber



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