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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Summit 214

Otiose Odalisque

  • La Revue de Cuisine
  • Sonatina for clarinet and piano
  • Pastorales (Stowe)
  • Quartet for clarinet, horn, cello, and side drum
Michele Zukovsky, clarinet
Bohemian Ensemble Los Angeles
Summit DCD214 48:27
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Four pastries, deliciously played.

If I had to nominate someone as the Twentieth-Century Mozart, I'd pick Martinů with no hesitation. A brilliant all-rounder, he created a huge catalogue including at least 11 operas, 5 or 6 symphonies (depending on whether you count the last one), several ballets and fugitive orchestral works, and a mountain of concerti and choral and chamber music. I keep reading about the variation in quality, but I've yet to see the point. Outside of some juvenilia, I've never met a Martinů work I didn't fall in love with, immediately, from the opening bars. Someone will have to explain to me why he doesn't count as one of the great voices of the Modern period, along with the Top Five – Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. The only thing I can come up with is influence. He founded no school. No one great took up what he did. But then, nobody great continued what Mozart was doing, either.

Although I can't pick even my favorite genre of Martinů, let alone a single piece, I've always found the "essential" Martinů in the chamber music. The range of it – from the darkly powerful Piano Quartet in d to the joyful Trio for flute, cello, and piano – astonishes me. Some of it qualifies as pure entertainment, for players and listeners alike. Much inhabits very complicated emotional territory, although I should mention that I've encountered fewer less-psychological artists than Martinů. Like Mozart, he looks out rather than in. You can't really tell the man's inner life from the work, except at a considerable remove. While you may have substantial insight into, say, Don Giovanni through Mozart's opera, you can't equate Mozart with the Don or even tell the composer's inner turmoil (or lack of it) through the music itself, just as you can't equate Shakespeare with Hamlet. Shakespeare, Martinů, and Mozart run counter to our prevailing notions of the Artist. The Classic artist explains the world to itself. Modern, Romantic artists explain the world through themselves.

The program presented here, although dominated by fun and the clarinet, demonstrates Martinů's emotional and functional range. The earliest of the pieces, the Quartet of 1924, boasts an odd scoring – the inclusion of the side drum – but the music itself sounds like the most natural thing in the world. It's a "sociable" work, and I strongly suspect Martinů wrote it for four friends who played clarinet, horn, cello, and side drum. Some of the music sounds closer to Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat than to Satie and Les Six. Some of it is pensive, a little surprise in essentially a one-off.

Martinů wrote his chamber ballet La Revue de Cuisine (the kitchen revue) a little later, in 1927. Definitely no-frills, the work uses only six instruments and belongs to Martinů's so-called "jazz" period. Two of its movements include a tango and a Charleston. The closest thing I can think of, really, is Milhaud's La Création du Monde or Martinů's own Le Jazz. Mainly a good time, it partakes a bit more of the aesthetics of Les Six – the fondness for vaudeville and popular forms. "Jazz" in the Twenties meant something quite different than it does today. After all, people considered Jolson a jazz singer. The term embraced certain kinds of pop and white dance or cabaret music as well as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Bessie Smith. In certain measures, one can almost hear The Rhythm Boys crooning into a microphone, with Paul Whiteman's orchestra in the background.

The Pastorales (Stowe) of 1951 have only recently come to light – a frightening thought, if you consider that Martinů reached the considerable height of his fame in the early Fifties. I wonder how many other pieces wait for discovery? Composed for the von Trapp family (yes, those Sound of Music -y von Trapps) who at the time ran an inn in Stowe, Vermont, Pastorales features the instruments the family played: 5 recorders (2 sops, 2 tenors, and a bass), C-clarinet, 2 violins, and cello. For an antidote to the sugary Broadway show, I always wondered if at least one of the kids had a tin ear and the rhythm of a stutterer. After all, what are the odds that all the many Trapp Kinder were musical? On the basis of this piece, the musicians among them were quite musical indeed. Not that there's anything virtuosic about the work, but it does demand a mature sense of phrase. The music itself has a mellow sound that, while recognizably Martinů, lies slightly outside his usual nervous energy. Martinů plays his favorite trick of fooling the ear into believing more instruments play than actually do, and the melodies inhabit that limbo between singing and dancing peculiar to Martinů. That is, you're never quite sure whether he sings in a dancing way or dances in a singing way. Slonimsky once characterized Martinů as a "brilliant contrapuntalist." In all the years, I had listened to Martinů, that thought had never occurred to me, but I saw at once that Slonimsky hit the nail on the head. The counterpoint was how Martinů – like Bach and Hindemith – got his music to dance.

Martinů composed his 1956 clarinet sonatina in New York, a city he hated. Of course, he did stay at the Great Northern Hotel, which would have depressed a lot of people. Jim Svejda's liner notes make a case for the work as emotionally discombobulated. I take the point, but I disagree. The sonatina certainly throws off emotional complexity, but Martinů's music, like Nielsen's, keeps its emotional balanced, no matter how powerful the emotions expressed. It was the composer's conscious decision for his music – he wrote very feelingly about the French concept of mesure and what it meant to him – and fortunately it suited his extremely reserved nature. I doubt a listener unaware of the biographical circumstances of composition would pick up on Martinů's unhappiness. On the other hand, the diminutive title slightly misleads. This is no throwaway or bagatelle. Martinů packs a lot into a small space. Wistful little polkas and marches flit through the work like fireflies, far from the brashness of, say, La Revue de cuisine. The energetic passages of the first movement have an edge to them, which by movement's end have transformed to high spirits. Similarly, the slow movement may start out as a trip through Carlyle's Centre of Indifference, but it shades into an heroic looking back. The finale hops about – Martinů's signature rhythms – but it's not just high spirits. Something more solid runs underneath. The emotional territory strikes me as mainly nostalgic or retrospective, much like Brahms' late clarinet music. Martinů's sonatina strikes me as full-grown masterpiece, with more weight to it than many a longer work.

After the CD ended, I wanted to give the performers a standing O. Zukovsky's a clarinetist in a million – wonderful tone, great command of color, and, beyond technique, the ability to communicate the living music behind the notes. Her recording of the clarinet sonatina handily beats de Peyer's, the only other one I know. She joins David Shifrin as My Favorite Clarinetist (classical). Her colleagues are mostly members (even principals) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including such luminaries as trumpeter Thomas Stevens, horn player Jerry Folsom, bassoonist David Breidenthal, and violinist Bing Wang. The joy of elegant music-making comes through with all of them. Even though the disc timing runs more than a bit short, I enthusiastically recommend this disc.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet