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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Revue de cuisine (La) / Harpsichord Concerto / Musique de chambre No. 1 / Les rondes (Hill, Holst Sinfonietta, Simon)
Ranging from 1927 to 1959, the year of Martinů’s death, these four works reveal his unceasing versatility in chamber repertoire. La revue de cuisine, heard here in a recent reconstruction of the original complete score, is a supreme example of Martinů’s jazz style. In Les rondes he evokes his Moravian folk heritage. The Harpsichord Concerto is resourcefully scored and brilliantly crafted, whilst Chamber Music No 1 (‘Les fêtes nocturnes’), one of his last works, sees no cessation of his invention nor of his delight in atmospheric colour.
By Lee Passarella
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Works for Chamber Ensemble
Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, H 246
for Harpsichord Solo, Flute, Bassoon, Piano, three Violins, Viola, Cello and Double Bass
Chamber Music No 1 (‘Les fêtes nocturnes’), H 376
for Clarinet, Harp, Piano and String Trio
Les rondes, H 200
for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, Piano and two Violins
La revue de cuisine: Ballet du Jazz, H 161
for Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, Piano, Violin and Cello
(Complete ballet, edited by Christopher Hogwood)
As a Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was the link between the tradition of Dvořák and Janáček and the new currents of the twentieth century. On this recording the Holst-Sinfonietta devotes itself to his voluminous output in works celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death.
Martinů was the son of a shoemaker and tower-watchman and received his first violin lessons from the tailor in his home town. As a result of his remarkable progress on the instrument the town’s inhabitants raised the funds to send him to study at the Prague Conservatory, where from 1906 he studied the violin with Josef Suk and, from 1909, both organ and composition. Although he was expelled from lessons in 1910, mostly because of inattentiveness and lack of interest, he managed nevertheless to obtain his diploma as a violin teacher in 1912. After employment as a deputy violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague in 1912 and 1913 he spent the First World War as a music teacher in his home town, since he was considered unfit for military service. From 1918 to 1923 Martinů played the violin again as a full member of the Czech Philharmonic. From time to time in 1922 and 1923 he had composition lessons with Josef Suk, before moving in 1923 to Paris, where he stayed until the following year in order to complete his composition studies with Albert Roussel. He lived in Paris until 1940 but with the approach of German troops he fled and after a journey lasting nine months arrived in the United States. There Martinů worked as a Professor of Composition in Massachusetts (1942–1945), at Princeton University (1948) and at the Mannes School of Music in New York (1948–1953). After taking up American citizenship in 1952, the following year he returned to Europe, where until 1955 he lived in Nice and for a short time in Rome. Thereafter he taught for a year at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and spent his final years living in Switzerland.
Martinů was a very versatile composer and worked very quickly, which is why, at first glance, his work might seem stylistically uneven and of variable quality. Yet his very extensive and multifaceted output exhibits several constant features. Most striking is the ever-present close connection with Czech folk-music, which often makes his work appear to go with a ‘swing’. His music is frequently very exuberant and dance-like. His rhythms are particularly sophisticated and display a charming tension between regular and irregular elements, with continuous changes of metre. His harmonic language is relatively traditional yet it has its own particular character which produces quite new relationships and tone-colours, although his adherence to an extended tonality does not rule out occasional harsh dissonances. Instead of traditional forms Martinů prefers freer, rhapsodic structures; the basis of his music is not so much themes as motifs which undergo complex transformation. While initially he was especially influenced by Impressionism his encounter with the music of Igor Stravinsky and Les Six in Paris had a lasting effect on his work. From this period he allied himself with Neoclassicism and also incorporated elements of jazz into his tonal language. Some of his late works display a penchant for a relaxed diatonicism but even here there are exceptions.
Martinů ’s musical sympathies were the opposite of the traditional perception of romanticism. For him music was no subjectively emotional declaration with ideological significance but rather a game with notes, something that works directly today for many contemporaries and which takes the listener along with it. As a result he wrote many works which could be described as domestic music. Admittedly several of his later works do not conform to this notion and are devoted to philosophical trains of thought. Martinů is among the most important of Czech composers and his compositions, especially the orchestral and chamber works, have been performed with increasing frequency in recent times.
Martinů ’s delightful Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra (1935), H 246, in the French neo-classical style, could almost be thought of as a chamber work on account of its scoring. With its combination of harpsichord and piano it achieves some fascinating sound-effects which anticipate Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante. The work’s dedicatee and the soloist at its première was Marcelle de Lacour.
Initially Martinů wanted to call Chamber Music No 1 (1959) H 376, his final, extensive, chamber music work, which dates from the year of his death, Les fêtes nocturnes. The inventive scoring of this work adds significantly to the unusual magic with which it is imbued. With the combination of harp and piano Martinů had already tried out some startling sound-effects in Gilgamesh and in the Piano Concerto No 4 (Incantation). Incidentally, this is Martinů ’s only chamber work which includes the harp. Compared with the Nonet, H 374, which was written just before it, Chamber Music No 1 is not a folkloristic work but a gentle and intimate atmospheric piece, neo-classical in character—a final homage to the “French” style.
The title Les rondes, H 200, refers to the round dances of the Russian ‘chorovod’; its original title was Moravian Dances. The work is closer to Janáček than any other by Martinů . In fact one can hear many evocations of the folk-music of his homeland, especially in the finale where Martinů achieves an astounding tonal richness with just a few instruments. Coming as it does right in the middle of his ‘French’ and jazz period it is a work of unadulterated national feeling.
The one-act jazz ballet La revue de cuisine (whose alternative title was “The Temptation of the Saintly Pot”) was written during Easter 1927. The scenario of the work was provided by Jarmila Kröschlová who gave the première of the work with her dance troupe in Prague in November of the same year. The concert suite derived from the score, with the movement titles Prologue, Tango (this magnificent parody of Ravel’s Boléro is really a habanera), Charleston and Finale, was given its first performance in the Cortot Concerts series in Paris in January 1930, where it was received with great enthusiasm. It is a supreme example of Martinů ’s jazz style.
Martinů considered La revue de cuisine to be one of his most successful compositions. More than thirty years after its composition he mentioned to his biographer Miloš Šafránek: “…the impeccable ordering of the movements in the score of La revue de cuisine, whereas in fact at that time I had no particular technique […]. But a work which one has in one’s head or which expresses the composer’s character creates its own technique.” The forthcoming marriage between Pot (Le chaudron) and Lid (Le couvercle) is jeopardised by the adventurous Whisk (Le moulinet) to whose magic Pot has succumbed. Pot is so captivated that Lid falls off him and rolls into a corner of the kitchen. Now Dishcloth wants to seduce Lid but order-loving Broom challenges Dishcloth to a duel, which delights Whisk. The two irritated combatants fight to the bitter end. Whisk makes eyes at Pot once more but now Pot longs for Lid, but Lid is nowhere to be found. The shadow of an enormous foot appears suddenly and with one kick propels Lid out of his corner. Broom leads him back to Pot, while Whisk and Dishcloth break out into a wild dance of joy.
Although La revue de cuisine is one of Martinů ’s most successful works, since its première and until not so long ago, the ballet was never performed in its entirety, but as a suite. For a long time the score of the complete work languished unnoticed in the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle. The reconstruction of the original score and the preparation of the revised edition was undertaken by the British harpsichordist and conductor Christopher Hogwood in collaboration with Aleš Brezina and the Bohuslav Martinů Institute.
English translation by David Stevens
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