MARTINU: Works for Cello and Piano, Vol. 2 (Christian Benda/ Sebastian Benda) (Naxos: 8.554503)
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Works for Cello andPiano, Volume 2
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was born in 1890 atthe country town of Polička in the mountains of Bohemia and Moravia. Hisfather, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed also as town watchman, living inthe bell-tower of the church of St Jakob, the highest vantage-point in thetown, with the task of keeping Polička from any recurrence of the firethat had devastated it earlier in the century. It was here that Martinů was born in 1890. In his childhood he learnedthe violin from a local tailor and made a local reputation for himself, givinghis first public concert in his home?¡town in 1905. At the same time he made hisfirst untutored attempts at composition. It was through the generosity of someof the citizens of Polička that in 1906 he was able to enter the PragueConservatory. There, however, he found the routine of the Violin School irksomeand was consequently transferred in 1909 to the Organ School, where he againfailed to distinguish himself. Expelled in 1910, he remained in Prague, nowconcentrating on composition and narrowly qualifying as a teacher.
During the war Martinů taught the violin inhis home-town, avoiding military service, for which he was medically unfit, andin 1918 he was able to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where hebroadened his musical experience while continuing to compose work after work.
At the Conservatory he had enjoyed a brief period of instruction from Josef Sukbut in 1923, assisted by a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study with AlbertRoussel.
In the following years Martinů's music began to gaina hearing internationally and at home. By 1931, still in Paris, he hadestablished himself well enough to marry a young dressmaker, although he neverearned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The German invasion of Czechoslovakiaand the annexation of the country in 1939, coupled with the threat of widerconflict, was both horrifying and alarming. Eventually, in June 1940, four daysbefore the German capture of Paris, Martinů and his wife madetheir escape, finding their way with considerable difficulty to Portugal andthence to Bermuda, to reach New York at the end of March 1941. In Americaduring the war there were commissions from various quarters, notably from theKoussevitzky Foundation, for which he wrote his First Symphony.
After the war Martinů had hoped to returnto Prague, where he had been offered the position of professor of compositionat the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His return to Europe was delayed byillness, after a fall at Tanglewood, where he had been invited to lecture, andany possibility of working again in hi, home-country was obviated by theaccession to power of the Communists in 1948. For some five years he remainedin the United States as professor of composition at Princeton, returning toEurope in 1953. Until 1955 he lived in Nice, then moving to Philadelphia toteach at the Curtis Institute for a year, before taking up a position at theAmerican Academy in Rome. After a further period in Nice, he spent his lastyears in Switzerland, where he died of cancer in 1959.
was enormouslyprolific as a composer, often seeming careless of the fate of what he hadwritten. He tended to avoid revision of his compositions and in consequence thevast quantity of music that he wrote is often of uneven quality and varyingstyle, although he came, in the 1930s, to make increasing use of Czech thematicmaterial and to be identified with his native country. Nevertheless there wereinfluences to be absorbed in Paris during the seventeen years he spent there.
Uneasy at first in NewYork, on his first arrival in America, Martinů and his wife eventuallysettled in Jamaica, on Long Island, where they enjoyed the friendship of aCzech cellist, Frank Rybka, and where Martinů set about the task oflearning English. There were commissions from Paul Sacher which led to his Concertodo camera and from Mischa Elman for a Violin Concerto. His Variationson a Theme of Rossini was written in 1942 for the Russian-born cellistGregor Piatigorsky. A call to attention from the piano is followed by thewell-known theme. The first variation has triplet rhythms divided between celloand piano, moving on to a version of the material in shorter note values. Thereis a certain respite in the third variation, with its sudden shift of tonality,after which the piano leads the way to the energetic fourth, with its rapidconclusion. After this the theme returns in more solid form.
Martinů wrote hisVariations on a Slovakian Theme in March 1959 at Pratteln inSwitzerland, where, now seriously ill, he was a guest of Paul Sacher and hiswife. The folk-song Kde bych ja veděla ('If I had known') providesthe theme, heard from the cello after the short piano introduction. Thesyncopations of the first variation and the intensity of its central sectionare followed by a version that makes use of a repeated rhythmic motif anddouble-stopping. The third variation opens with solemn piano chords, followedby the cello in melancholy intensity, the fourth variation offering a contrastas a scherzo, before its final rhetoric. The set ends with a vigorous final derivativeof the theme, now with asymmetric rhythms, in true Slovak style.
The remaining workshere included were written in Paris in 1930. The six Pastorales openwith a meditative Andante, leading to a second piece of cheerful energy,episodes framed by its principal theme. Staccato piano chords accompany thesustained cello melody of the third piece, as it slowly unwinds and the fourthagain offers a contrast in its onward impetus. It is left to the cello tointroduce the fifth Pastorale in dramatic recitative, and the last ofthe set is characteristic in its rhythmic drive.
The Nocturnes aredescribed as four pieces for cello with piano accompaniment, asymmetric in therhythm of the first piece. The second, marked Lento, proceeds to apassage of cello chords, after the opening chords of the piano. A tender melodylies at the heart of this night-piece, before the return of the figuration ofthe opening. The third piece is equally evocative in its sustained melodicwriting for the cello and the fourth opens with the plucked notes of the cello,before the forward impetus of the bowed passage that follows. The plucked notesof the opening return in conclusion.
Effective use is madeof the open strings of the cello in a deceptively convincing first piece in theSuite Miniature of easy pieces. There are fingered notes in the secondpiece, which makes no great technical demands on a performer. A livelier thirdmovement calls for a degree of agility and a fourth elicits a singing tone fromthe cello. The fifth makes use of repeated melodic formulae, the sixth is awhimsical Allegretto and the whole work ends with a movement that makeseffective use of scale patterns.