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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Sinfonietta ‘La Jolla’ H. 328 (1950) [20:23]
La revue de cuisine H. 161 (1927) [13:54]
Toccata e due canzoni H. 311 (1946) [24:32]
Merry Christmas 1941 (H. 286 bis) trans. Roger Ruggeri (1941) [3:59]
Tre ricercari H. 267 (1938) [14:02]
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
rec. April 1991 at Ordway Music Theatre, St Paul, Minnesota, USA
Presto CD
DECCA 433 660-2 [77:70]

Christopher Hogwood is probably best remembered for his performances and recordings of early music, particularly of the baroque and early classical periods. However, he also liked twentieth century music of the neo-classical kind, such as Stravinsky, Holst and Tippett. In particular he had a great enthusiasm for Martinů. He served on the Board of the Martinů Institute, which is in the course of preparing a complete edition of Martinů’s works, which it is planned will take some fifty years to complete and run to around a hundred volumes. He edited one volume in the series. He also made a number of recordings of Martinů’s music, in particular a four disc set of the complete violin concertante works, with the violinist Bohuslav Matušek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on the Hyperion label, which all Martinů fans should have (if they don’t, they should acquire the set immediately).

Hogwood was music director of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1988 to 1992 and, during his tenure, he made this recording of Martinů works, which is now available again thanks to Presto’s reissue programme. Hogwood wrote his own, extremely helpful sleevenote, in the course of which he accurately characterises Martinů’s music: ‘A few pages of almost any one of his scores will produce a list of musical fingerprints: the alternating major/minor tonalities that are always claimed (by non-Czechs) to be such a feature of the national idiom; the motor rhythms, resonant with Baroque implications (and often entrusted to the piano in the orchestra); climaxes contrapuntally constructed, sharpened fourths, ‘amen’ cadences and, in slow movements, long, free-floating melodies constantly victimised by syncopation.’ I would add that his fondness for the concerto grosso form was tempered by his love of fantasy and impressionism, which is prominent in his operatic masterpiece Julietta and grew increasingly on him as he grew older. Furthermore, I find the accusation of note-spinning which is occasionally levelled at him to be wholly unfair: his music is always delightful, elegant and attractive, beautifully constructed and scored and a pleasure to listen to. In a way, he is the twentieth century Haydn.

Here we have five works, which all display these characteristics. The first we hear was the latest to be written. Martinů wrote the Sinfonietta ‘La Jolla’ in response to a request from the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla in California for a tuneful and approachable work, which it certainly is. It has a prominent piano part and is sometimes listed among Martinů’s concertos. There are three movements. It opens with characteristic Martinů chattering and then bounces along cheerfully with occasional darker hints. The slow movement is gentle and pulls back from any feeling of anguish. The finale returns us to the lighthearted mood with one graver moment in the middle.

La revue de cuisine is the earliest work here, and was written as a ballet, in which the dancers took the parts of kitchen utensils. The marriage of Pot and Lid is under threat from Twirling Stick. Pot succumbs and Dishcloth goes for Lid but is challenged by Broom. Eventually Pot and Lid are reunited and Twirling Stick goes off with Dishcloth. Martinů was clearly influenced by Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, and, like him, employed a small mixed ensemble and used fashionable forms such as the Tango and the Charleston. The piece is pure entertainment. Here we have the normal suite, in four movements. Hogwood later unearthed the original ballet version of the score, in ten numbers, which he recorded on a Supraphon disc.

The Toccata e due canzone was written after the end of the war. It begins with a fantasy opening which leads to a dance-like number with leaping figures and punchy rhythms. The first canzona is sombre. The second was intended to be light and gay, but while working on it, Martinů sustained an accident in which he damaged his skull which affected his hearing and balance. The close of the work seems to reflect this, though there is a final burst of energy.

Merry Christmas 1941 is a jeu d’esprit, a piano piece written for the mother of the family which offered hospitality to Martinů and his wife Charlotte when they fled to New York from Nazi-dominated Europe. Martinů wrote this as a piano work, but it was transcribed for wind quintet by Roger Ruggeri and this is what we hear. The daughter of the family, Julia Bogorad-Kogan subsequently became principal flutist of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which is doubtless how Hogwood came across the piece – it was not included in the original catalogue of Martinů’s works.

The Tre ricercari was a commission from the Venice Biennale. Martinů understood a ricercar to be a very free form of fantasy. The opening is bustling but works into greater urgency with a long sinuous line overlying the energetic activity below. The second movement features a solo flute, then an oboe over pizzicato strings, and the finale is playful. In idiom, the work seems to anticipate Martinů’s orchestral masterpiece, the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani of the same year, but it does not have that work’s sense of doom and menace. The orchestra includes not one but two pianos and they are naturally prominent in the texture.

The performances here sound thoroughly convincing: Hogwood had steeped himself in the Martinů idiom and trained his orchestra well. The recording is clear and there is nothing not to like. There are other performances of all the works here but not in this combination, and anyone wanting a disc of Martinů works other than the main symphonies and concertos will be well pleased with this.

Stephen Barber

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