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8.554503 - MARTINU: Works for Cello and Piano, Vol. 2
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Works for Cello and Piano, Volume 2

The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was born in 1890 at the country town of Polička in the mountains of Bohemia and Moravia. His father, a shoe-maker by trade, was employed also as town watchman, living in the bell-tower of the church of St Jakob, the highest vantage-point in the town, with the task of keeping Polička from any recurrence of the fire that had devastated it earlier in the century. It was here that Martinů was born in 1890. In his childhood he learned the violin from a local tailor and made a local reputation for himself, giving his first public concert in his home­town in 1905. At the same time he made his first untutored attempts at composition. It was through the generosity of some of the citizens of Polička that in 1906 he was able to enter the Prague Conservatory. There, however, he found the routine of the Violin School irksome and was consequently transferred in 1909 to the Organ School, where he again failed to distinguish himself. Expelled in 1910, he remained in Prague, now concentrating on composition and narrowly qualifying as a teacher.

During the war Martinů taught the violin in his home-town, avoiding military service, for which he was medically unfit, and in 1918 he was able to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he broadened his musical experience while continuing to compose work after work. At the Conservatory he had enjoyed a brief period of instruction from Josef Suk but in 1923, assisted by a scholarship, he moved to Paris to study with Albert Roussel.

In the following years Martinů's music began to gain a hearing internationally and at home. By 1931, still in Paris, he had established himself well enough to marry a young dressmaker, although he never earned enough to allow even reasonable comfort. The German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the country in 1939, coupled with the threat of wider conflict, was both horrifying and alarming. Eventually, in June 1940, four days before the German capture of Paris, Martinů and his wife made their escape, finding their way with considerable difficulty to Portugal and thence to Bermuda, to reach New York at the end of March 1941. In America during the war there were commissions from various quarters, notably from the Koussevitzky Foundation, for which he wrote his First Symphony.

After the war Martinů had hoped to return to Prague, where he had been offered the position of professor of composition at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His return to Europe was delayed by illness, after a fall at Tanglewood, where he had been invited to lecture, and any possibility of working again in hi, home-country was obviated by the accession to power of the Communists in 1948. For some five years he remained in the United States as professor of composition at Princeton, returning to Europe in 1953. Until 1955 he lived in Nice, then moving to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute for a year, before taking up a position at the American Academy in Rome. After a further period in Nice, he spent his last years in Switzerland, where he died of cancer in 1959.

was enormously prolific as a composer, often seeming careless of the fate of what he had written. He tended to avoid revision of his compositions and in consequence the vast quantity of music that he wrote is often of uneven quality and varying style, although he came, in the 1930s, to make increasing use of Czech thematic material and to be identified with his native country. Nevertheless there were influences to be absorbed in Paris during the seventeen years he spent there.

Uneasy at first in New York, on his first arrival in America, Martinů and his wife eventually settled in Jamaica, on Long Island, where they enjoyed the friendship of a Czech cellist, Frank Rybka, and where Martinů set about the task of learning English. There were commissions from Paul Sacher which led to his Concerto do camera and from Mischa Elman for a Violin Concerto. His Variations on a Theme of Rossini was written in 1942 for the Russian-born cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. A call to attention from the piano is followed by the well-known theme. The first variation has triplet rhythms divided between cello and piano, moving on to a version of the material in shorter note values. There is 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 rapid conclusion. After this the theme returns in more solid form.

Martinů wrote his Variations on a Slovakian Theme in March 1959 at Pratteln in Switzerland, where, now seriously ill, he was a guest of Paul Sacher and his wife. The folk-song Kde bych já veděla (‘If I had known’) provides the theme, heard from the cello after the short piano introduction. The syncopations of the first variation and the intensity of its central section are followed by a version that makes use of a repeated rhythmic motif and double-stopping. The third variation opens with solemn piano chords, followed by the cello in melancholy intensity, the fourth variation offering a contrast as a scherzo, before its final rhetoric. The set ends with a vigorous final derivative of the theme, now with asymmetric rhythms, in true Slovak style.

The remaining works here included were written in Paris in 1930. The six Pastorales open with a meditative Andante, leading to a second piece of cheerful energy, episodes framed by its principal theme. Staccato piano chords accompany the sustained cello melody of the third piece, as it slowly unwinds and the fourth again offers a contrast in its onward impetus. It is left to the cello to introduce the fifth Pastorale in dramatic recitative, and the last of the set is characteristic in its rhythmic drive.

The Nocturnes are described as four pieces for cello with piano accompaniment, asymmetric in the rhythm of the first piece. The second, marked Lento, proceeds to a passage of cello chords, after the opening chords of the piano. A tender melody lies at the heart of this night-piece, before the return of the figuration of the opening. The third piece is equally evocative in its sustained melodic writing 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 notes of the opening return in conclusion.

Effective use is made of the open strings of the cello in a deceptively convincing first piece in the Suite Miniature of easy pieces. There are fingered notes in the second piece, which makes no great technical demands on a performer. A livelier third movement calls for a degree of agility and a fourth elicits a singing tone from the cello. The fifth makes use of repeated melodic formulae, the sixth is a whimsical Allegretto and the whole work ends with a movement that makes effective use of scale patterns.

Keith Anderson


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