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Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
Sredni Vashtar: A Symphonic Drama after Saki for narrator, soprano and orchestra (completed, 2017) [26:26]
The Curse of Christopher Columbus: (excerpts from the opera) Hornpipe, Prelude and Scene 1, Frigate Birds’ Duet (1992) [11:11]
Serenade for Strings (1955) [20:26]
Simon Callow (narrator)
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano)
Olivia Robinson (soprano)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Ronald Corp
rec. 2018, Angel Studios, London

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, Martelli composed several 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. At this time, he earned a living as a professional violist playing under Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli wrote several film scores and many ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for string quartet. This latter music covered the gamut from 17th century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received many broadcasts. During the nineteen-eighties, Martelli composed several ‘light’ pieces including ‘Persiflage’, ‘Promenade’ and a ‘Jubilee March’. In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s Paw and a children’s opera, the present The Curse of Christopher Columbus were written.

The longest work on this new CD is Sredni Vashtar for narrator, soprano and orchestra. It is a setting of a short story by the Scottish author Hector Hugh Munro, whose pen-name was ‘Saki’. It reveals his characteristic balance of cruelty and wit. Sredni Vashtar is a large polecat which the boy Conradin keeps in a disused tool shed. He begins to worship the cat, offers up prayers to the beast and subsequently imagines what evil it could wreak on his ‘domineering guardian’ Mrs De Ropp.

Carlo Martelli’s music is an ideal fusion of stage, cinema, orchestra, chamber music, and voices with which he has worked all his career. The work has been ‘under construction’ for many years. Some of the music dates back as far as 1953 to incidental music written for a performance of Menander’s play The Rape of the Locks. The balance between the relative wit of the narrator (Simon Callow) and the haunting song of the boy himself beautifully sung by the soprano (Lesley-Jane Rogers) is well-judged. A large orchestra is used. Carlo Martelli has created a judicious and subtle work. Despite this praise, it is not a story that I warm to. It is really about two people who are downright nasty to each other: I feel that I have no sympathy for either character nor the ferret.

The three extracts from Carlo Martelli’s children’ opera The Curse of Christopher Columbus whet the appetite to hear the entire work. It was commissioned in 1992 by the Shropshire County School of Music to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. The libretto was by Chris Eldon Leigh. The opera was duly premièred on 14 July 1992. I was delighted to read that the entire work has been recorded by the Carma Record label and is due to be released in early 2019. Hopefully, I will be able to review this disc. Till then, I can recommend these enjoyable extracts. Meanwhile I will not plot spoil.

The first extract features a rough-hewn hornpipe from Scene 14 when Columbus sets sail in search of the New World. The second piece is from the very beginning of the opera. This part of the story is set in an art gallery where a statue of Christopher Columbus is about to be unveiled to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his voyage. Here the listener will be conscious of Martelli’s skill as a film composer honed by his work with the Hammer Horror Films. The soprano creates an air of apprehension with her ‘aria’ Something stirs.’ The final extract is the fanciful ‘Frigate bird duet.’ These two birds, Dogger and Finisterre are sung by two sopranos, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Olivia Robinson. The liner notes accurately describe this as a ‘delightfully Vaudevillian duet.’ This tripartite song opens with introductions, followed by a wry and cynical look at other explorers who predated Columbus’s Atlantic crossing. The last part is the Frigate birds’ farewell. The final bars are a brilliant bit of musical seascape with wind and spray. Oh! that Martelli had written a Sea Symphony!

For me, the most interesting work on this CD is the Serenade for Strings, Op.3. This was composed in 1955 when the Martelli was only 20 years old. It was subsequently revised before being given its première performance at the 1958 Cheltenham Festival.

The reviewer in the Birmingham Daily Post (12 July 1958) suggested that the Italian side of the composer’s nature expressed itself in ‘the fluent, lissom melodic lines and his sunny clarity of texture.’ I think I agree with this reviewer that the Serenade does not display a clear musical personality. Certainly, many of Martelli’s themes and musical ideas have considerable character, but somehow the work just does not quite come together. It may be that there is a little stylistic imbalance between the movements that the composer has not quite got around to ironing out. That said, the individual parts of this work make a splendid contribution to British string orchestra repertoire. My favourite movement is the ‘Tarantella’. This is a masterpiece in string writing, with scherzo-like music propelled along by the dynamic staccato accompaniment. The trio section is much more ‘chilled’, before the driving dance music returns. The final movement is also a masterclass in string writing. From an almost negligible tune, Martelli weaves a splendid selection of variations, which never stray too far from the theme.

This is a fascinating CD that introduce three works that have never been recorded before. It is handsomely produced and finely performed. The liner notes by Paul Conway are essential reading. The text of Sredni Vashtar is given in full. I look forward to further releases from the composer’s own record label.

John France



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