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8.557861 - MARTINU: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 / Sonata for 2 Violins and Piano
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 • Sonata for Two Violins and Piano


Chamber music, in all of its many combinations from ensembles of up to nine instruments to duos, occupies a significant place in the vast output of Bohuslav Martinů. Although it is the sequence of string quartets, spanning a period of some three decades (1917-47) that constitutes his most substantial contribution to the genre [Naxos 8.553459, 8.553782 and 8.553783], there are few chamber formations whose possibilities he did not try out, not least the piano quintet, a medium that had held considerable appeal for composers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and whose late-Romantic expressive overtones Martinů found not at all incompatible with the distinctly post-Romantic aesthetic favoured during his maturity.

Although he had composed a piano quintet as early as 1911, the two numbered works came much later. The First Piano Quintet emerged in 1933, a period during which Martinů, who had come through the heady excesses of 1920s Paris with its predilection for jazz and dance music (idioms that were extensively explored in his music), was focussing on more clear-cut stylistic elements, coupled with a renewed interest in the folk-lore and traditional music of his native Bohemia, then part of Czechoslovakia. Compact in its formal dimensions and restrained in expression, the work is a fine instance of the neo-classicism dominating Martinů's instrumental output in the 1930s. Typically, each of its four movements obeys classical principles without ever merely imitating them.

The first movement begins with a vigorous idea shared between all five instruments, before the piano makes a commanding transition to the second main theme, which is subdued and capricious by turns. This brings about the main climax, whereupon the piano effects a more self-effacing transition back to the livelier idea. The themes then alternate on the way to a surprisingly impassioned ending. The second movement opens with a flowing, hymn-like theme on strings, taken up by the piano so that a ruminative dialogue develops. A more forceful central section provides necessary contrast, before the main theme resumes at a marked tonal distance from before, building intensively before dying away regretfully in the strings. A brief coda, drawing on both themes, brings the mood full circle. The third movement is an intermezzo whose often lively rhythmic syncopation is typical of the composer. The trio section is characterized by a folk-like theme heard over a tonally ambivalent accompaniment, after which the initial theme resumes its animated course as before. The fourth and final movement brings with it an incisive theme that is energetically discussed by the quintet, with the march-like second theme rather more ironic in tone. Both of these themes feature in an intensive central development, led away from by the second theme. This is now curtailed so that the first theme can be brought back into play for an augmented and decisive conclusion: one that may yet catch the first-time listener unaware.

Composed in 1944, the Second Piano Quintet is a product of the war-years that Martinů spent in and around New York. Although he adapted to his American environment more readily than others of his contemporaries, an element of restiveness, even anxiety, is seldom far from the surface of his music during that time. Such is true of the quintet, cast on a larger scale than its predecessor and also more innovative in its approach to formal issues. Although it was written immediately before the Third Symphony [Naxos 8.553350], the work's mood of cautious optimism is rather closer to that of the Fourth Symphony [Naxos 8.553349] that succeeded it, as is the often intricate and diaphanous instrumentation.

The first movement gradually comes into focus through an undulating motion on piano and strings, with the robust main theme only then taking shape. As with other of Martinů's instrumental works of this period, there are numerous secondary but related ideas that throw the main theme into greater relief, not least a mysterious one at the centre that brings back the opening music in varied form. The second movement is one of the composer's most thoughtful Adagios, building from a few simple phrases into a noble dialogue and complemented by an unworldly, ostinato-driven idea that might almost be a prototype for certain Minimalist music of several decades hence. This gives way to a version of the first theme heard radiantly on violin, then to a searching passage on strings, before the opening is recalled on the way to a gentle close. The third movement is a fully-fledged scherzo whose main theme nonchalantly trades exchanges between the strings over a lively piano accompaniment, culminating in a hectic chase to the close. By contrast, the trio is spare and almost self-effacing in manner, while being no less rhythmically alert. The scherzo then resumes much as before, but this time the 'chase' brings about a more decisive end. The fourth movement opens with a slow introduction of a sustained intensity and tonal freedom not found elsewhere. The Allegro that follows is a perfect foil in its nimble energy and relaxed manner, though the introduction is to make its presence felt in an intensified mid-way return. After this, a much-curtailed version of the Allegro returns to take the whole work through to its breathless conclusion.

Baroque stylisms and procedures were as important to Martinů as those from the Classical era, as is demonstrated in the Sonata for Two Violins and Piano composed in 1932 (two years after a Sonatina for the same combination): a work freer and also more relaxed in its manner than are the quintets. The first movement begins with an animated theme that has a distinct rustic feel. A second idea is moodier in expression, without undermining the essentially good-natured manner of the movement overall, which presently heads to a lively close. The second movement combines both slow movement and finale. The Andante is pensive but never overly tragic in its manner, though building to a climax of due seriousness. It draws to a thoughtful yet audibly provisional close, at which point the Allegro is launched in decisive fashion. This features a notably darker central section, which is yet too brief to dispel the high spirits that soon return to take the work on to its effervescent close.

Richard Whitehouse


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