INKPOT#66 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MARTINU Works inspired by Jazz and Sport (Supraphon)
Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)Works inspired by Jazz and Sport
La revue de cuisine (1927) – Jazz-Suite and Ballet in One Act
Jazz-Suite for Small Orchestra (1928)
Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments (1929)
Shimmy foxtrot from Who is the Most Powerful in the World
Le Jazz (1928) – A movement for vocals and orchestra
Half-time – Rondo for Large Orchestra
La Bagarre – Allegro for Large Orchestra
Thunderbolt P-47 – Scherzo for Orchestra
Karel Dlouh clarinet Jir Formcek bassoon Vclav Junek trumpet
Bruno Blcik violin Milos Sdlo cello Frantisek Rauch piano (La revue)
Zdenek Jlek piano (Jazz-Suite) Prague Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Zbynek Vostrk (Shimmy, Le Jazz)
Lubomr Pnek Singers (Le Jazz) Jan Panenka piano, with the Prague Wind Quintet (sextet)
Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronsky (Half-Time, La Bagarre, P-47)
SUPRAPHON Records SU 3058-2 011
by Adrian Tan
Up from the late Romantic period to the 20th Century, composers all over the world took it upon themselves to see musical expression away from its Teutonic roots. Many created a whole new sound that was not only revolutionary, but also served as a kind of identity that set their music firmly in modern times. Often, we think of big names such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Les Six, Shostakovich and so on.
Bohuslav Martinů (left) rightly falls into this class of composers with six serious symphonies, a plethora of ballets, operatic and choral works with evocative names like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Butterfly That Stamped, Week of Kindness and Legend of the Smoke from Potato Fires. Unfortunately, he has been waaaaaaay under-rated for all his musical ingenuity in creating some of the most “recognisable” of modern music.
This marvellous anthology focuses on some of the Czech composer’s earliest works when he was in his 20s and in Paris, absorbing the radical musical happenings of the day with premieres by Stravinsky, Les Six and also, the many fashionable American (and Latin American) dances such as the Charleston, the Boston and the Tango, all which were invading Europe’s ballrooms in all their swinging glory. Bombarded by such magnificent sounds, the young Martinů was inspired to write some of his best music that reflected his youthfulness, preparing the world for more great music from the pen of this innovative composer.
La revue de cuisine, based on text of poet Jarmilla Kroschlova’s Temptation of the Holy Pot which sketched a scenario involving love and despair amongst kitchen utensils, made a name for Martinů in Paris. This Jazz suite in five movements is also subtitled by the composer as a “ballet in one act”, the reason being the fusion of the Tango and Charleston into a Stravinsky-influenced ballet form.
Reminiscent almost of Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat in terms of the economy of instrumentation and style, Martinu’s music is lively, colourful and unpretentious. The Prologue with a fanfare on the solo trumpet brings in the theme, which is continued by the rest of the ensemble. With a rollicking mixed-meter rhythm, the cello develops this theme into a full melody which is further tackled by the other instruments. The syncopation which usually characterises ragtime music is effectively blended to contrast and enhance the “(neo)-classical” writing style.
The second movement, “Tango”, once again features a solo cello introducing the melody followed by an insistent quaver rhythm, culminating with a beautiful bassoon solo. The third movement, “Charleston”, is a swinging romp from beginning to end, imitating the improvisational sounds of dixieland jazz. The Finale recapitulates on the theme from the prologue, and meshes in the Tango and Charleston elements from the other movements as well. The final melody is a mockingly triumphant march melody played by the violin while the solo trumpet in the closing bars reminds one of English influences.
The Czech musicians performing on this CD excel as they maintain the parody that is clear in the music, which means not taking it too seriously, but not jazzing it up either. One could probably point a finger at the unrefined qualities of the tones of the wind instruments but I find that the raw quality and reedy sound works well. Laid back yet with immaculate precision, the ensemble catches the spirit of the music wholly and in all its humour.
The Jazz Suite followed about a year after the success of La Revue and similarly attempts to infuse jazz into the classical ballet suite. The four movements, titled “Prelude”, “Musique d’entre-acte: Blues”, “Musique d’ entre-act: Boston” and “Finale” do not share the same “American-ness” as does La Revue, but lean towards the French composers.
Melodies are not as distinct and unassuming, with much more focus on the harmonic structure. The result is less catchy tunes and less defined dance influence, most noticable in the second movement, “Blues”. After a while, a trained jazz listener would probably hear the subtle blues scales used but to the relatively uninitiated, the reason why the movement is entitled “Blues” will escape one altogether. Similarly with the “Boston”, the level of abstraction is much higher as compared to the “Charlseton” in La Revue, indicating a musical maturity that we will see Martinů continue to build on in his later years.
The members of the Prague Symphony Orchestra form small orchestra to play this Jazz Suite, producing a nice chamber sound. Some difficulties in the harmony result in some intonation slips but not in the way that affects the music adversely. What is lacking though, is conductor Zbynek Vostra’s clear interpretative direction which I think would make some passages in the first three movements more accessible.
The Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments is an interesting work with five movements, two of which are subtitled “Blues”. This features the Prague Wind Quintet and pianist Jan Panenka. The style of this work is close to that of the Jazz Suite, but contrasted by the more transparent quality of the wind quintet medium. Martinů writes beautifully for this medium, with, I think, very clever scoring that features each instrument in its own way demonstrating the particular player’s virtuosity.
The flautist gets a tough job as a solo instrument with piano, and some knuckle-busting passages that sound extremely difficult to me. Most prominently, I am very much in favour of how Martinů uses the unique tone quality of the bassoon, giving it important counter-melodies and melodies (and that Tango in La Revue!) rather than the usual “oom-pah, oom-pah”, which happened to have been taken over by the piano. The Prague Wind Quintet must be one of the best of its kind for its fantastic ensemble playing and musicianship. The ease of their playing make an entire orchestra sound cumbersome, yet not sacrificing the musical expression and subtlety.
Who is the most powerful in the World is a ballet comedy in one act to a libretto by the composer. This is an operetta of sorts that again uses popular dance music to present a social and political satire. The Shimmy foxtrot featured here is one such dance from this piece. This is as “foxtrot” as it can get but dissonant, disorderly and disrespectful (but not disapproved!). You can almost hear mice squeaking (from the clarinets) all over the place. A short but delightful number that the Prague SO treats nonchalantly, sounding careless but ensemble work definitely sharp and precise.
By this point in the CD, the listener is probably bored by the repetition of the same style for over 30 minutes of music (as I was).
Le Jazz (some more?) is a nice distraction, as this is perhaps the most irreverent piece in the whole CD. Using the banjo as the core rhythmic drive in most of the piece, a dixielandish feel is established. Even the melody is stereotypically in that genre and it repeats again, and again, and again. Then, all of a sudden, an a capella group breaks into the orchestra with the same nagging melody, like Martinů sticking his tougue out at your face!
The melody is so hummable and “stupid” that it engages one immediately (think Macarena). Irritating as it is, I recall skipping to this track many times as I listen to this CD. As abruptly as it begins, it ends with a large dissonant chord. Simply calling this piece Le Jazz, one wonders what Martinů was thinking when he wrote this.
The last three songs in the anthology are inspired by sporting events, another highlight of those bygone days that Martinů as a young man indulged in. Yes, composers do watch the sports channel as well, just like ordinary human beings like you and I. (In fact, he even wrote an opera for the TV).
Inspired by American football, Martinů wrote Half-time (someone should write something for the S-league). Honestly, I have no idea of the game and cannot tell the reader if the music reminds you of a football game but I can tell that again, strong Stravinskian influences prevail. However, it is probably not impossible to recognize the fever-pitch excitement at a game that is captured vividly in the music, with running bass lines and rapidly shifting tonalities.
La Bagarre was written in association with Charles Lindberg’s first ever non-stop trans-atlantic flight in 1927. Martinu’s dedication clearly spells out his compositional concept “a great counterpoint, in which all the small and big interests of individuals are lost like secondary themes and at the same time unite in a new composition of movement … in a new form of the powerful and unstoppable atmosphere of the crowd”.
This piece was premiered by Koussevitzky with the Boston SO and made a name for Martinů in America. The Thunderbolt P-47 is the famed American fighter plane of World War II which this orchestral scherzo aims to describe. One gets the impression that Martinu’s orchestral work lacks the lustre of his chamber works, but to be fair, Martinu’s symphonies are quite different altogether. By the last piece, which was composed in 1945, the maturity of the work is already obvious, having developed a sound of his own.
The Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra delivers these competently. However, the tone of the orchestra comes across rather scruffy, probably the result of some balance problems as well as the relatively poor standard of the recording. The orchestras and instrumentalists on this recording all share this common sound which distinguishes the musicians in that part of the world, as compared to the Germanic refinement of the VPO or the Berlin Phil.
I would love to hear an American orchestra deal with Martinu’s works as I think some of Martinu’s textures would be fully fleshed out by the clarity and precision an American orchestra would bring. The strong point of this recording though, must be the more “authentic” interpretation.
This selection of a very particular kind of music that might appeal to Gershwin-, Bernstein- or even Poulenc fans due to the similarity in style. I recommend that the reader pick this one up as an introduction to Martinů before picking up some of the other stuff, of which (possibly) his masterpiece, the great oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh should be one. Otherwise, this recording makes for good light listening anyhow.
Anyway, who said 20th Century music has always got to be difficult?Martinu: Symphonies Nos.1 & 6
If you are in Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or HMV (The Heeren).
Adrian Tan thinks that Mickey Mouse is the most powerful in the world.
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