This recording is the first volume of a four-disc survey of Martinu’s complete output for solo violin and orchestra, including compositions with other solo instruments. This important series will include some first recordings, and works which are currently widely performed only in the Czech Republic; they are still waiting to be rediscovered abroad. They are performed here by the orchestra in which Martinu played the violin, the distinguished Czech violinist Bohuslav Matoušek who is one of the foremost living exponents of this music, and conductor Christopher Hogwood.
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Among all musical instruments the one that Bohuslav Martinu (1890–1959) knew the most intimately was the violin. He played it during his youth in Policka, in Eastern Bohemia close to the border with Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. His first attempts were made at the age of four in the gallery of the church tower where he spent the first eleven years of his life as a son of the town’s clock-keeper. At that time he used one stick as the violin and another as the bow. Two years later the local tailor and music teacher Josef Cernovský became young Bohuslav’s first violin teacher. Martinu soon revealed his talent and within a couple of years achieved fame locally performing virtuoso pieces by Bériot, Ernst, Wieniawski and others. Impressed by his performing skills, some rich local businessmen decided to pay Martinu a small bursary, which allowed him to study the violin at the Prague Conservatory.
The rich musical life in Prague distracted Martinu from practising the violin, and at the same time he began regularly composing his own music. Nevertheless, he was accomplished enough to enter the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, first as an auxiliary violinist (1913–14) and after the First World War as a regular member of the second violins (1920–23) under Václav Talich. By that time, however, he was already studying composition with Josef Suk and was certain about his main musical interest. In October 1923 Martinu left Prague and went to Paris to study composition with Albert Roussel. One of the first things he did in Paris was sell his violin in order to raise some money, and he only occasionally played the instrument in later life.
Being an accomplished violinist it is not surprising that Martinu was much in demand as a composer of instrumental music. He enriched the concert literature of the twentieth century with dozens of highly imaginative works. In addition to his four violin concertos he wrote eight concertos requiring a piano soloist, four with cello and one each for harpsichord, viola and oboe, as well as a further five double, two triple and two quadruple concertos, all with orchestra. Like most of his output these works were commissioned by important soloists, art patrons and institutions. The successful premieres of them—with internationally acclaimed soloists such as Misha Elman, Rudolf Firkušný, Gaspar Cassadó, Pierre Fournier, the Pro Arte Quartet, Marcel Moyse and others—led to a long period of popularity for Martinu’s music which lasted for several decades. However, it didn’t survive the generation of the above-mentioned musicians. Of all the genres of Martinu’s compositional output, the concertante works became the most neglected. All of the concertos, except those for oboe and viola, are now out of the field of vision of international soloists, and are widely performed only in the Czech Republic; they are still waiting to be rediscovered abroad.
This recording is the first volume of a four-disc survey of Martinu’s complete output for solo violin and orchestra, including compositions with other solo instruments. The works on this disc justify Harry Halbreich’s division of concertos by Martinu into two categories: the neo-Classical concerto grosso type of the 1930s, and the neo-Romantic concerto style, mostly for large orchestra, of the 1940s and 1950s. (One could also add the neo-Impressionist style of at least two of his concertos, his Oboe Concerto and Piano Concerto No 5.)
Like many neo-Classical composers—including Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Paul Hindemith—Martinu was inspired by the principle of the Baroque concerto grosso, utilizing a group of solo instruments (concertino) in opposition to a full orchestra (ripieno). The concerto for two or more solo instruments with orchestra became one of the principal forms in Martinuo’s music, especially during the 1930s. Typical for his concerti grossi is a plan of three movements, as well as the departure from traditional sonata form, with its duality of themes, towards a continuous development of small patterns (which the composer called ‘cells’). In 1931 he composed his Concerto for string quartet and orchestra, and two years later came two works with a piano trio as the solo group—the Concerto and Concertino, each for piano trio and string orchestra.
Then in October 1936 Martinu composed his Concerto for flute, violin, and orchestra H252. He was already an established composer, and he wrote it in just ten days on commission from the French flautist Marcel Moyse, probably the most celebrated flute player of his time (after World War II Moyse moved to the United States and founded, together with Adolf and Hermann Busch and Rudolf Serkin, the Marlboro Music Festival). The part of the violin was conceived for Blanche Honegger Moyse (b 1909), a Swiss violinist who studied in Geneva and in Paris with Adolf Busch and Georges Enesco. She married Marcel’s son Louis Moyse, an accomplished flautist and pianist. It was for the Moyse trio—consisting of Marcel, Blanche and Louis—that Martinu wrote his Sonata for flute, violin and piano H254 (1937) as well as Promenades for flute, violin and harpsichord H274 (1939). (In October 2006 Blanche donated the autograph score of the Concerto for flute, violin and orchestra to the Martinu Institute in Prague, and Louis did the same with the autograph score of Promenades.)
While composing the Concerto for flute, violin and orchestra, Martinu interrupted the work on his main work of this period, the opera Juliette. According to the composer’s letter to his family in Policka the concerto was planned to be premiered ‘on the radio in London at the end of October’. It is therefore quite surprising that he finished his concerto only in October. Martinu probably put his trust in the virtuosity of both soloists, whom he knew well personally—he spent Christmas Eve 1936 with the Moyse family. The concerto was in fact first performed three days later on 27 December 1936 by Marcel Moyse and Blanche Honegger Moyse with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under Philippe Gaubert (the former teacher of Marcel Moyse at the Paris Conservatoire). Its first performance was broadcast live on radio and was soon followed by performances in other important cities such as London and Geneva.
This three-movement work follows the Classical layout of fast–slow–fast. The piano plays an important role in the instrumentation of the concerto, enriching the colour of the orchestra. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, a fast cadenza successively introduces the solo instruments, starting with the flute. The second movement, Adagio, is rich in expression, offering lyrical melodies presented alternately and jointly by the two solo instruments. A lyrical violin cadenza prepares the final section of the second movement which culminates with an expressive counterpoint of the two solo instruments with the string section. The final movement, Poco allegretto, has the layout of a three-part song-form whose central cantilena section leads after a flute cadenza to a repetition of the first part. The ensuing fast coda intensifies the build-up to the culmination of the movement, and thus of the whole work.
Another double concerto in the form of the Baroque concerto grosso is the three-movement Duo concertante for two violins and orchestra H264. It was written in November and December 1937 in Nice at the villa ‘Point Claire’ which belonged to his old friend the Czech painter Josef Šíma. The composer commented on this piece in a letter to Miloš Šafránek from Nice: ‘I have conceived the orchestra very lightly so as not to cover the soloists and so that the solos don’t have to be forced. The tempo of the first movement adheres to that of a concerto grosso, meaning don’t hurry, but on the contrary play with the intention more of holding back so that sonority and technique can come to the fore. I think Poco allegro is apt. The second movement, Lento, presents no problems with tempo. […] As far as the title is concerned, I didn’t write any on the score, but I think best would be the Duo concertante for two violins and orchestra.’
From this concerto grosso-style work Martinu adopted the typical alternation of solo and tutti, which fascinated him for a number of years. Typical for his works from the 1930s are the three-movement structure and the departure from sonata form with its individual themes, which are replaced here by a continuous fabric of delicate motivic elements. Emphasis is placed on orchestral colour. The freshness of the musical ideas and the virtuoso writing of the two solo violin parts make this eighteen-minute composition an extraordinary musical experience.
The premiere took place on 10 February 1938 in Yverdon (Switzerland) with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet. The solo parts were played by the brothers Georges and Victor Desarzens, who had commissioned the work and to whom it is dedicated. Victor later became a celebrated conductor; he founded the Orchestre de chambre in Lausanne and performed many orchestral pieces by Martinu in both Lausanne and Winterthur, his other place of work. Some autograph materials for the concerto were recently donated to the Martinu Foundation by Victor Desarzens’ daughter Martine, along with a very important and illuminating correspondence between her father and Bohuslav Martinu.
In the twelve years between the Duo concertante and the Concerto in D major for two violins and orchestra H329 almost everything changed in Martinu’s life. In 1940 he left Paris just a few days before the Nazi occupation and spent nine hard months escaping from France, through Spain and Lisbon in Portugal, to the United States. During World War II Martinu established a reputation as probably the most performed living classical composer in America, accepting commissions from leading orchestras and soloists. Originally intending to return to Czechoslovakia after the war, he changed his plans after the communist take-over in 1948 and took American citizenship. The last six years of his life were spent mostly in Italy, France, and Switzerland—at the home of the conductor Paul Sacher. In addition to the complicated political situation of the Cold War, Martinu suffered a serious accident in 1946, which left him deaf in one ear and caused an almost permanent loss of balance. He recovered sufficiently to accept a teaching position at Princeton University in New Jersey in September 1948, but it was not until the early 1950s that he returned to his usual rate of composing several works within very short periods of time. The Concerto for two violins was written from May to July 1950 in New York on commission from the promising young twins Gerald and Wilfred Beal. At the time of its premiere, which took place in Dallas on 14 January 1951, the twins were barely eighteen years old.
Apart from the simple fact that it was written for two solo violins and orchestra, this concerto is almost completely different from the earlier Duo concertante. It uses a large symphonic orchestra in the Romantic concerto tradition and shows a remarkable spiritual connection between Martinu and Antonín Dvorák, his successful Czech predecessor in America. As always the solo parts are highly virtuosic and rewarding to play. In April 1954, in a letter to his close friend the conductor Ernest Ansermet, Martinu compared his concerto in a humorous way to the Concerto for two violins in D minor BWV1043 by Johann Sebastian Bach, mentioning that his own is probably not as good as Bach’s but that it is not bad and perhaps the first of its kind since Bach (it is somewhat surprising that he seemed not to remember his own earlier Duo concertante).
Unfortunately there is no recording of the concerto by its dedicatees to explain the way it is composed—Martinu always reflected the characteristic attributes of his commissioners or performers of the premiere. It seems that the Beal twins were equally technically skilled with an inclination towards rapid passagework. The concerto consists of three more or less fast movements without a genuine slow middle section. The Poco allegro opens in a bright D major in 6/8 time, a metre Martinu liked for its potential for constant small rhythmical changes. The entrance of the two solo instruments returns to the material of the orchestral introduction; however, it is now presented with very intricate double, triple and quadruple stops, so that immediately Martinu creates his favourite effect of a full sound, here evoking a string quartet rather than just two violins. The second movement, Moderato, starts in B flat major, Martinu’s most favoured key in the music of his final decade. The first violin opens with a long-breathed melody accompanied by the harmonic figuration of the second violin, before the two soloists switch their roles. The third movement, Allegro con brio, returns—attacca—to D major, in 2/4. In a virtuoso cadenza both soloists get to demonstrate their technical skills and beauty of tone, before a fast Vivo (Presto) brings the piece to an end with Ševcík-like enthusiasm.
Despite the succesful premiere and several acclaimed performances throughout the first half of 1950s, the work never attained the popularity it deserves. This was at least partially caused by the troubles Martinu had to find a good publisher. He first offered it to Universal Edition in Vienna in 1953, which at first accepted it but for unknown reasons never published it. Four years later, in January 1957, Martinu proposed it to Eschig but nothing came of this either. Only at the beginning of 1959 did Martinuo finally find a publisher for this work: Bärenreiter. However, legal problems delayed the publication of this concerto until 1962, three years after the composer’s death.
Indeed, another reason for this concerto’s obscurity might be the very long period of exclusive performing rights the Beal twins reserved in the original contract. Even in July 1956 Martinu wrote to a friend, the oboe player Jirí Tancibudek, that the piece might become free only in a year or two. After the unexpected dissolution of ‘The Beal Twins’ the concerto fell into oblivion and was rediscovered only several decades later. It is to be hoped that it will now enter the concert repertoire.
Aleš Brezina © 2007
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