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CLASSICAL  November 2008

CLASSICAL November 2008

Subject:

Martinu on Louisville

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Wed, 5 Nov 2008 15:13:35 -0800

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Bohuslav Martinu
Louisville Premieres

*  Symphony #5 (1946)
*  Intermezzo (1950)^
*  Concerto for Oboe & Orchestra (1955)*
*  Estampes^ (1958)

*Marion Gibson, oboe
The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, *Sidney Harth
First Edition Music FECD-0018 (^MONO) Total Time: 65:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: A sentimental attachment.

I got seriously interested in classical music back in the day of the
long-playing record.  However, I tended not to like the usual.  Most
18th- and 19th-century music bored me.  I found the harmonies insipid
and the music all too predictable.  It was very old and very new music
that got my heart pumping, mostly because it didn't sound like Haydn,
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, or Brahms.  I wanted to hear
Hindemith, Mussorgsky, Britten, Stravinsky, Schuman, and Bartok, as well
as composers whose names and music I didn't yet know.  Fortunately, I
lived in a big city which had large record shops (at the time, mostly
independently owned) and browsing bin after browsing bin, which I could
pick through to new things.

The Louisville recording label, with its charcoal-gray jackets and
yellow sticky-circle listing contents, quickly became something to look
for.  Backed by heavy foundation money, Louisville commissioned new work
and pumped out an amazing recorded catalogue of modern music, if not
necessarily "advanced," not only from the Americas, but from Europe as
well.  It remains a landmark project in the history of recorded music.
A surprisingly high percentage was pretty damn good.  All the works here,
for instance, excepting the oboe concerto, received their first recordings.

Louisville production values hovered slightly above no-frills.  One
often looked vainly for some reason why wildly different pieces appeared
on the same program.  On the other hand, you learned about the range of
different styles and the variety of composers.  The very first Martinu
piece I ever heard came from Louisville - the Intermezzo for Orchestra,
accompanied by Foss's Parable of Death and Milhaud's Kentuckiana.  Knocked
sideways by his potent combination of neoclassic Stravinsky and Czech
folk-like themes, I admittedly went nuts and started grabbing as much
Martinu as my paper-route and lawn-mowing money would allow.

In contrast to his first four symphonies, all composed for major
American orchestras, Martinu wrote the three-movement Fifth Symphony,
the biggest work on the program, for the Czech Philharmonic, an ensemble
he had played in for many years.  The symphony is less manic, a bit more
relaxed than its predecessor, which the composer had written as the
Allied victory in Europe started to become clear.  Nevertheless, a
capacious mind lies behind the Fifth.  The first movement moves from
darkness to light, a thanksgiving for victory perhaps, and plays with
three ideas: a moody intro which gives way to folk-like syncopations
and dance rhythms and a broad singing.  The music of the intro tries to
return about half-way through, but with less staying power, until it is
utterly transformed at the very end into something like joy.  The second
movement - marked larghetto, but really an allegretto - has a song shape.
Two happy sections, chugging like a toy train, frame a more easy-going,
lyrical middle. The finale combines slow movement and the usual wrap-up
and recalls the rhetorical shape of the symphony's opening.  We begin
with a motive suspended somewhere between serenity and regret.  The
motive becomes more and more animated, until it busts out into a lively
six-eight dance. The dance winds down to something like the opening, and
the process begins again, until we reach a life-affirming conclusion,
with the motive changed from darkness to radiance.

The Intermezzo, even after all these years, still thrills me. 
Louisville commissioned the score, which strikes me as the essence
of Martinu's art.  Akin to an Italian overture in form, it's also an
orchestral showpiece, with that characteristic combination of Martinu's
"singing syncopation." Some composers mainly sing.  Others mainly dance.
Martinu's music inhabits a fluid space between the two.  You're not sure
whether the dancer sings or the singer dances.  It freakin' soars.

The composer's last large orchestral piece, Estampes (prints) owes
its existence to yet another Louisville commission.  Martinu wrote it
in Switzerland and said it described three Swiss landscapes.  Along with
the Sixth Symphony and the 3 Frescoes, it typifies his final rapprochement
with Impressionism.  The textures tend to the shimmering and misty, but
on the whole the music seems tougher and tighter than most Impressionism.
Martinu's years of athletic neoclassicism didn't entirely leave him.

The oboe concerto has become a repertory staple - for oboists, at any
rate - along with the Vaughan Williams and the Strauss.  Also a product
of Martinu's final period, it nevertheless looks back to his neoclassic
days.  The opening is pure sunshine, and the oboe's entrance takes us
into an ecstatic pastoral world.  The scoring is often chamber-light,
which paradoxically adds to the intense elation of the music.  Shadows
enter the slow movement, a bit like Barber's Adagio in mood, although
it achieves nowhere near that emotional weight.  The finale leaps like
lambs in Spring, as Martinu seems to shake one frisky tune after another
out of his sleeve.

I've heard many performances of each of the pieces here.  I've come
generally to prefer the Supraphon recordings above others, particularly
the ones led by Ancerl and Neumann, and at one time, at least, all these
pieces were available on that label.  Ironically, the Intermezzo appears
only on this recording at the present time, at least in the U.S.  Whitney
and Harth (in the oboe concerto) lead compelling performances, although
at times the symphony isn't as rhythmically tight as it needs to be, and
the sound is a bit constricted, even in the stereo tracks.  Still, the
readings are quite fine, with Marion Gibson a lovely standout in the
oboe concerto.  I'd still try for Czechs on Supraphon, however.  The
only reason for getting this disc (and possibly duplicating other things
in your collection) is the Intermezzo - nine minutes of pure wonderful.
I'd do it, but I'm coo-coo for Martinu.

Steve Schwartz

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