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CLASSICAL  December 2007

CLASSICAL December 2007

Subject:

Martinu Piano Quintets

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 10 Dec 2007 19:02:04 -0800

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Bohuslav Martinu

*  Piano Quintet No. 1 (1933)
*  Piano Quintet No. 2 (1944)
*  Sonata for 2 Violins and Piano (1932)

Martinu Quartet, Karel Kosarek (piano).
Naxos 8.557861 Total time: 58:33

The Czech composer Martinu once remarked that he never felt more himself
than when he wrote chamber music.  He produced a ton of it throughout
his life, from duos to nonets, even after throwing away much juvenilia.
The standard rap on Martinu is that his writing so much compromises the
quality of his work.  With the exception of very early music, I have yet
to find a weak piece in his catalogue or even works that didn't grab me
from the opening measures, although I certainly prefer some scores to
others.  I also think it significant that Martinu's critics don't agree
on which pieces belong on the dump pile.

Martinu, a violinist and violist himself, wrote beautifully for strings,
although it took him a while to find himself as a composer.  He began
as an Impressionist, an unusual choice in the Prague of that time, when
young composers would more likely have followed Dvorak or Richard Strauss.
However, Martinu received a government grant to study in Paris for six
months.  He wound up staying there for decades, leaving (fleeing) only
when the Nazi army approached.  He and his wife caught the last train
out of the city.  Modern France, in particular Stravinsky and Roussel,
pushed him to find his own path.

The first piano quintet still shows the influence of the latter.  As in
the better-known string sextet, one hears echoes of late Roussel.  For
those who know the Martinu of the later symphonies, the harmonies here
sting more, and the textures seem more constricted.  What we also hear,
however, is the faint sound of Czech folk music, particularly dance
rhythms.  As the Thirties proceed, the harmonies lighten up and the
rhythms, often super-polkas, swing more easily.  However, certain elements
in Martinu's language remain constant, particularly his strong allegiance
to and mastery of counterpoint.  It surfaces throughout his mature work
in various guises.  In the Twenties, it takes the form of an interest
in hot jazz.  From the late Twenties through the Thirties, it allies
itself to neo-classical and neo-Baroque procedures, culminating in the
magnificent Double Concerto.  Afterwards, the composer uses counterpoint
to intensify the folk-dance element in his music.  In the Twenties, he
got excited by performances of English madrigals by the pioneering English
Singers, but it bore little immediate fruit.  He didn't take the singing
qualities of the counterpoint, but the rhythmic one and related it to
the cross-accents of jazz, as one can hear in the small gem Le Jazz.
But jazz as such represented no more than a temporary diversion.  Martinu
in Paris quickly became concerned with "seriousness," following the
monumental tendency of works like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and the Piano
Concerto or Roussel's Suite for Orchestra and Third Symphony.

The first movement of the earlier quintet also shows Martinu's talent
for "dramatic" architecture.  Themes, like characters in a play, conflict
with or act upon one another, leading to some argumentative resolution.
Here, two themes provide the matter for the movement: the first, a
syncopated phrase beginning with a falling and a rising fourth; the
second, a scherzo-like idea based on an arpeggiated triad.  In the course
of the movement, Martinu brings out ties between the two to the extent
that they interpenetrate and blur.  The listener experiences this as
something naturally unfolding, rather than forced.  The hymn-like second
movement's main theme also begins with a fourth.  It strongly resembles
the pastoral Vaughan Williams, although I doubt either had heard the
other.  After the initial statement, the theme darkens, building intensity
until the inevitable release.  Yet the release is not to its old
na√-vet√©, but to inconclusiveness, despite its final major chord.
The third movement, an allegretto polka, reverts to the procedures of
the first movement, but on a lighter scale.  A rhythmically-duple theme
whose main purpose is to get the body moving contrasts with a lyrical
second theme in triple time.  In overall A-B-A form, the themes nevertheless
mingle, with figurations from the first theme accompanying the singing
second.  This kind of contrast and blending forms pretty much the basis
of Martinu's symphonic work of the Forties.  The finale, a march, takes
the methods encountered so far to extremes.  Two martial themes, so
similar they seem struck from the same template, appear one right after
the other, instead of receiving their own exposition.  Martinu gets them
to mix it up immediately.  A contrasting figure of running sixteenths
bubbles under the accompaniment and eventually, slightly slowed, seems
to herald a new idea, but this turns out to be a variant of the second
theme.  As these ideas roil in the pot, the harmony becomes less and
less stable, until, near the end, you feel a powerful pull toward order.
It's like seeing a hazy swirl sharpen into focus or a sauce coming
together in a pan -- a physical thrill.

The second quintet appears approximately ten years later and thus relates
more strongly to the sound-world of the symphonies.  Indeed, one can
effortlessly imagine a full orchestration.  I consider from about 1938
to 1952 Martinu's most beautiful period.  A gorgeous tension imbues the
work of this time -- neither as constricted as the scores of the late
Twenties and early Thirties nor as loose as the late orchestral fantasies.
The second quintet expands emotionally more widely than the first, without
losing architectural strength.  In four movements as well, it runs about
ten minutes longer, to give you some idea of its larger proportions.
Some have referred to the idiom as "singing syncopation," a halfway point
between both.  You can't be sure over a long period whether the music
mainly sings or dances.

In the first movement, the composer once again employs his favorite
rhetorical strategy of "focusing the haze," bringing order from chaos,
although here he does it at the opening bars.  It's as if all the elements
are swirling in space and suddenly coalesce into galaxies or one suddenly
brings the disarray of night-sky stars into constellations.  Several
loosenings and tightenings -- that pretty much sums up the movement's
rhetorical sweep.  The second movement deals in short, simple gestures
-- reminiscent of the adagios in Stravinsky's neoclassical ballets --
stitched together to make a long, complex statement.  A slow, formal
dance leads to increasingly complex ostinatos, which in turn lead to a
kind of stasis and a brief return of the slow dance.  Out of this emerges
a rapturous melody on the first violin, where every note makes the heart
sing, accompanied by figures from the slow dance and from the ostinatos.
This leads back to a variation on the slow dance, scored thickly, like
a chorale.  Eventually, the texture thins to something like the opening,
and the movement finishes quietly with a short coda based on the ostinatos.
Unlike its counterpart in the first piano quintet, the movement ends
serenely.

The third movement, a straightforward scherzo with trio, plays rhythmic
games in its main part, based on the fact that you can add six eighth
notes together as two groups of 3 or three groups of 2.  The trio is a
slow polka.  The fourth movement begins with a long, solemn intro for
strings alone, followed by quicker music for the entire ensemble.  About
sixty percent of the way in, the slow intro returns for the strings.  It
ends, and a new quick section, in a breathless triple time and led by
the solo piano, takes off for an authoritative conclusion.

The Sonata for 2 violins and piano comes from 1932 and thus lies close
to the first piano quintet.  Although an altogether lighter affair than
the quintet, it shares many features, including a first-movement theme
based on country fiddle and fourths.  Although the composer gave the
work a sonata label, don't expect a classical sonata, like Mozart or
like even middle Beethoven.  There is less a second subject group, for
example, than a switch of moods from gay to pensive.  Almost all the
ideas in the movement are dominated by elements of the first subject,
so that we seem to move fluidly from one mood of the dance to the next
and back again.  According to the liner notes, the second movement
combines slow movement and finale, but I hear it instead as an introduction
and allegro, more or less à la Vivaldi, a Baroque movement rather
than a classical one.  The slow part moves along an arch, builds to a
climax and releases into faster music.  Again, the final section doesn't
follow classical procedures, but more the Baroque ripieno and concertino
back and forth.  Even though there's no difference in ensemble size
between Martinu's sections, the character and textures of each section
take care of the contrast.  Given the lightness and "sociability" of the
sonata, I suspect Martinu wrote it for friends, rather than on commission.
Unlike the quintets, the score is less a monument and more a diversion.

The players of the Martinu Quartet do well by their namesake, the
violinists especially.  Pianist Karel Kosarek, although a fine accompanist,
seems slightly too reticent.  He doesn't take full advantage of his shots
when he gets them.  Unlike most piano-and-string chamber ensembles, the
violinists rather than the pianist drive the readings.  Still, this is
an honorable rendition of some of the most solid chamber music of the
Modern era, and at a Naxos price, too.  Naxos has also released the
string quartets.  I hope they continue the series.

Steve Schwartz

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