First Recordings of Two of Martinu's Chamber Works
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 05/29/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As far as I know these are the first recordings -- or at least the first modern recordings -- of the First Piano Quintet (1933) and the Sonata for Two Violins and Piano (1932). Martinu, of course, wrote lots of chamber music and it is not surprising that not all of it is familiar; I've never heard either of these works in concert. The Second Piano Quintet (1944) does occasionally figure on programs, at least here in the US where it was written while Martinu waited out World War II. All three works partake of Martinu's idiosyncratic and easily recognizable style and there does not appear to be much change in that style in the intervening years between the sonata and the second quintet. This was a period in which Martinu was fascinated with the concerto grosso form, having studied in detail the works of Bach, Corelli and others. Stylistically, as the Grove Dictionary article by Jan Smaczny has it, "Syncopated, sprung rhythms and the superimposition of closely spaced harmonies against a fundamentally tonal background are features apparent in his music as early as the orchestral Nocturne in F minor of 1915, and they remained fundamental aspects of his mature style." That is certainly true in these three works. The end result of this is that modernists can listen to his music with much appreciation but more conservative listeners can hang onto and respond to his basically tonal approach. I recall hearing a friend describe Martinu's style, both in his orchestral and chamber music works, as 'tonal music heard through a polytonal scrim.' Apt words. One of his harmonic fingerprints is the so-called Moravian cadence, an altered plagal ('amen') cadence that involves use of dominant thirteenth that resolves to a tonic triad.
The First Quintet is in four movements and lasts about 18 minutes. The first movement, after a string-dominated first theme, evolves to a triadic piano-dominated second theme. The themes are alternated creatively and the movement ends with an intensity that is little presaged by the earlier material. The Andante second movement features a flowing string chorale eventually decorated by piano filigree, a somewhat more intense and harmonically vague middle section and a return, in a distant key, to the opening idea which leads to a coda that combines the movement's two main melodic ideas. The Scherzo is highly syncopated and makes use of what sounds like a modal Bohemian folk-tune midway along. The finale, Allegro moderato, makes much of the interaction of two main themes, the second of which sounds a little like the sardonic side of Shostakovich.
The Second Quintet lasts about 30 minutes and is in the usual four movements. After a somewhat meandering first movement, the Adagio second movement is built on only a few motifs and develops an ostinato that seems to prefigure the sort of thing one began hearing forty years later in minimalist works. The Scherzo has the strings and piano playing cat and mouse until a calmer but still rhythmically alive trio intervenes. The finale has a misterioso Andante introduction leading to an Allegro non troppo main section whose primary affect one of bustling geniality; the andante if heard from again briefly midway before the allegro returns and sprints to a spirited climax.
The Sonata for Two Violins and Piano sounds almost baroque in the interaction of the two strings and the piano, the latter acting much like a continuo, albeit a 20th-century one. The sonata is a two-movement work lasting about twelve minutes. There is a perky Stravinskyan feel to much of the writing in the first movement. The second movement is a yearning andante that leads to an allegro finish. One can easily imagine this work being choreographed as a pas de deux.
The playing of the Martinu Quartet (Lubomir Havlák & Petr Mateják, violins; Jan Jîsa, viola; Jitka Vlasaková, cello) is expert but their tone occasionally turns a little scrappy. Karel Kosárek, the pianist, plays brilliantly.
Superb performances of one masterpiece and two very worthwhi
G.D. | Norway | 08/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Naxos continues their impressive series of Martinu chamber music with this immensely rewarding disc of one of Martinu's indubitable masterpieces, coupled with two rewarding but less well-known works. The masterpiece in question is of course the second piano quintet, dating from 1944. It is immediately recognizable as Martinu (more accurately the Martinu of the middle symphonies) with the appealing blend of impressionism and sleekly elegant neo-classicism. Sporting wonderfully, almost dream-like melodies, the first movement is one of Martinu's most appealing creations, and the following Adagio is one of his most memorable slow movements. The finale, with its juxtapositions of buoyant and busy fast parts with lyrically reflective slow tempos is utterly unforgettable as well; in short, the piano quintet is one of the true masterpieces of the medium and should be known by any music lover.
I won't pretend that the other two works are on the same level, but they are still very worthwhile. The first quintet, from 1933, is - although recognizably Martinu - rather different in terms of his treatment of the material. More neo-baroque in style, the music is slightly more craggy and abrasive and the work sounds more like a concertante work for the piano - with the piano set in discursive opposition to a more unified string group. The melodies and figures are overall less memorable than those of the successor, but it is still a very appealing work. More or less the same applies to the playful and somewhat unpredictable Sonata for two violins and piano; overall an entertaining but hardly profound work with a great deal of charm.
The performances are outstanding; the acclaimed Martinu Quartet provides excellent, idiomatic playing as expected, and Karol Kosárek is certainly a superb partner. The end result is energetic, technically impeccable and full of spirit. All in all, this is another terrific Naxos chamber release, very strongly recommended."