Patrick C Waller
, October 2004
The Ondes Martenot is a monophonic electronic instrument which was invented in 1928. Pitch is controlled with the right hand by a keyboard or ribbon, whilst sound intensity and tone are controlled by switches located in a drawer and operated by the left hand. Ondes is French for "waves" and Maurice Martenot (1898-1980) was the Frenchman who invented the instrument. Martenot was a cellist and scientist whose interest in electronic sound was primarily in its expressive musical potential. About 370 instruments in seven different versions were produced in Martenots workshop, latterly by his assistant Marcel Manière. Production ceased in 1988 but a similar instrument, the ondéa is on its way.
The ondes is most likely to be familiar from Messiaens Turangalîla Symphony but Milhaud, Honegger, Varèse and Boulez have all written music including a part for it and the total repertoire of about a thousand works also features some film music. This disc features a wide ranging selection played on ondes Martenot number 343 by Thomas Bloch and including five world premiere recordings (the three works by Bloch and those by Wisson and Redolfi). Only in Thomas Blochs Formule is the ondes played solo, elsewhere it is combined with the orchestra, piano, percussion, woodwind, vocals and other electronic instruments. The other two works by Thomas Bloch are for nine ondes and played by his own Waves Orchestra. It is not clear from the documentation but I suspect this may be him playing all nine parts.
The disc opens with some Messiaen, appropriately since he and his sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod (1928-2001 - a fine exponent of the ondes), probably did more than anyone to popularize the instrument. The Feuillet inédits were put together by the composers widow Yvonne Loriod and published in 2001. No. 4 is a short work, pastoral in feeling at the opening but becoming increasingly ethereal. After this Bloch’s Formule is a rude awakening to some more menacing sounds. This is described as a repetitive toccata and was written as an encore for one his recitals.
Bernard Wisson’s Kyriades exists in several forms and is given here as a concerto in three movements. This is the most substantial work on the disc, lasting 16 minutes. The first and third movements are dark in feeling with prominent percussion but the slow movement brings light and lyricism from the ondes.
Martinu’s Fantaisie preceded the Wisson by over half a century and is also quite substantial. It was originally written for the theremin (a related instrument introduced one year before the ondes), piano, oboe and string quartet but proved too difficult to play on the theremin. Substitution of the ondes was therefore authorized by Martinu. This is an attractive work, quite characteristic of the composer and it provides a good contrast with the more modern works preceding and following it on the disc.
All the other works are fairly short and the product of recent years. Mare Teno and Nightmare include voices and the latter also has parts for bassoon, keyboards, percussion and a phone answering machine. Perhaps the most remarkable is Etienne Rolin’s Space Forest Bound which has an improvisatory quality. In the first section, entitled Heterodyne, it evokes images of outer space whilst the finale, Creature Beat, lands us back in an earthly jungle.
Throughout the disc Thomas Bloch makes a good case for the ondes and he demonstrates its full potential. In the excellent booklet there is a detailed essay on the instrument and on the individual works but no room for information about the performers.
A stimulating rather than a relaxing disc. It gets full marks for interest value and may be better sampled rather than swallowed whole. This is an essential purchase for those interested in unusual instruments. Once heard, the ondes is unforgettable.