INKPOT#99 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MARTINU String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. Martinů Quartet (Naxos)
by Benjamin Chee
Considering the prolific output of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, it is surprising that he still does not receive the amount of exposure he deserves today. Not only did Martinů begin at an early age, he also wrote a great amount of music across all genres from opera and film music to chamber works and liturgical choruses. The nature of his music admittedly is sometimes uneven, but this is largely due to his inimical attitude against revising his works once they were completed.
The catalog published by Harry Halbreich in Bohuslav Martinu: Werkverzeichnis, Dokumentation und Biographie (Atlantis Verlag, Zurich 1968) lists no less than twelve entries which can be grouped as quartet works (excluding only the fragmentary movement “Largo religioso”), of which three early items are now lost.
This album is the first of Naxos’s series of the remaining quartets, beginning with the first two quartets (No.1 H.117 and No.2 H.150) and the juvenile Tri jezdci (“The Three Horsemen”) H.1, which also has the distinction of being Martinu’s earliest surviving work.
The first two numbered quartets are not entirely dissimilar in character, the first written while Martinů (right) was a rank-and-file violinist in the Czech Philharmonic and stylistically already drawing heavily from the emerging vogue of Ravel and Debussy. Coupled with Martinu’s unique and highly personal artistry, the second quartet was even more unavoidably so when it came to the French impressionist influence. He had, at the time, just completed a brief tenure under a scholarship with Roussel in Paris, a city where he would remain for the next 17 years.
Even at this early stage, it was evident that Martinů was a new voice, at the same time idiomatic yet accessible, with a strong sophistication of tonal texture built on fully-integrated qualities of Bohemian folk material. It was an intriguing perspective in composition that had no precedent in earlier quartet literature.
Admittedly, these early works do not have the sophistication and polish of the later efforts, nor is there such a marked evolutionary difference between number one and number two. The first quartet retains the four-movement structure, along with a second-movement andante and a scherzo-like allegro non troppo (with its trio in arrhythmic 5/4 time).
The second quartet, with its direct impressionistic influence, is more robust – even profligate – in its range of invention and expedition. While it does make some strenuous technical demands on the players, its unique tonal inventiveness might lead one to describe it, as one might say, as a quartet’s quartet.
To claim that only a Czech quartet could do Martinů justice would be, to use a cliché, to ship coals to Newcastle – but the eponymous Martinů Quartet do deliver a performance into which a lot of inflection and understanding have been expended. They penetrate the mystery of these objets d’art not with robust virtuosity as much as a deep sensitivity coupled with imaginative variety of attack, and shading of tone colour.
There are many memorable passages: the immediate pungency of the opening of the allegro con brio of the first quartet that immediately seizes the listener and refuses to let go; the sprightly dance-like momentum with which the second quartet begins; the lilting dissonances that frame the meditation of the slow movement in the second quartet. This is surely an instance where the native musicians do their compatriot proud.
As filler, the Martinů Quartet offer the earliest of Martinu’s compositions. Written when he was a thirteen-year-old and listed as H.1 in the Halbreich catalog, Tri jezdci (“The Three Horsemen”) is based on the ballad of the trio of noblemen who brought news of the burning of Jan Hus.
This is an awkward effort, not nearly as polished as, say, the string sonatas by Rossini (written at roughly the same age) or the adolescent meisterstücken of Mendelssohn – but nonetheless, in the hands of the Martinů players, it still makes for a rewarding, not to say insightful, listening experience and fills out the disc to maximum capacity.
The quality of the recording easily matches the clarity and focus of the playing, with minimal breathing noises that are so often quite intrusive. Considering that this disc is also being offered at super-budget price, there is much here which deeply impresses, and also makes one look forward to the remainder of the series.
You can buy or order this CD in Singapore from HMV, Sing Discs, Tower Records and other good CD stores.
Benjamin Chee t ypically works thirty-two hours a day when he’s not > writing about music. And he doesn’t even have to commute.
738: 19.7.2000 Benjamin Chee