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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Louisville premières

  • Symphony #5 (1946)
  • Intermezzo (1950) ^
  • Concerto for Oboe & Orchestra (1955) *
  • Estampes(1958) ^
* Marion Gibson, oboe
The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney
* The Louisville Orchestra/Sidney Harth
First Edition Music FECD-0018 (^Mono) 65:54
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A sentimental attachment.

I got seriously interested in classical music back in the day of the long-playing record. However, I tended not to like the usual. Most 18th- and 19th-century music bored me. I found the harmonies insipid and the music all too predictable. It was very old and very new music that got my heart pumping, mostly because it didn't sound like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, or Brahms. I wanted to hear Hindemith, Mussorgsky, Britten, Stravinsky, Schuman, and Bartók, as well as composers whose names and music I didn't yet know. Fortunately, I lived in a big city which had large record shops (at the time, mostly independently own) and browsing bin after browsing bin, which I could pick through to new things.

The Louisville recording label, with its charcoal-gray jackets and yellow sticky-circle listing contents, quickly became something to look for. Backed by heavy foundation money, Louisville commissioned new work and pumped out an amazing recorded catalogue of modern music, if not necessarily "advanced," not only from the Americas, but from Europe as well. It remains a landmark project in the history of recorded music. A surprisingly high percentage was pretty damn good. All the works here, for instance, excepting the oboe concerto, received their first recordings.

Louisville production values hovered slightly above no-frills. One often looked vainly for some reason why wildly different pieces appeared on the same program. On the other hand, you learned about the range of different styles and the variety of composers. The very first Martinů piece I ever heard came from Louisville – the Intermezzo for Orchestra, accompanied by Foss's Parable of Death and Milhaud's Kentuckiana. Knocked sideways by his potent combination of neoclassic Stravinsky and Czech folk-like themes, I admittedly went nuts and started grabbing as much Martinů as my paper-route and lawn-mowing money would allow.

In contrast to his first four symphonies, all composed for major American orchestras, Martinů wrote the three-movement Fifth Symphony, the biggest work on the program, for the Czech Philharmonic, an ensemble he had played in for many years. The symphony is less manic, a bit more relaxed than its predecessor, which the composer had written as the Allied victory in Europe started to become clear. Nevertheless, a capacious mind lies behind the Fifth. The first movement moves from darkness to light, a thanksgiving for victory perhaps, and plays with three ideas: a moody intro which gives way to folk-like syncopations and dance rhythms and a broad singing. The music of the intro tries to return about half-way through, but with less staying power, until it is utterly transformed at the very end into something like joy. The second movement – marked larghetto, but really an allegretto – has a song shape. Two happy sections, chugging like a toy train, frame a more easy-going, lyrical middle. The finale combines slow movement and the usual wrap-up and recalls the rhetorical shape of the symphony's opening. We begin with a motive suspended somewhere between serenity and regret. The motive becomes more and more animated, until it busts out into a lively six-eight dance. The dance winds down to something like the opening, and the process begins again, until we reach a life-affirming conclusion, with the motive changed from darkness to radiance.

The Intermezzo, even after all these years, still thrills me. Louisville commissioned the score, which strikes me as the essence of Martinů's art. Akin to an Italian overture in form, it's also an orchestral showpiece, with that characteristic combination of Martinů's "singing syncopation." Some composers mainly sing. Others mainly dance. Martinů's music inhabits a fluid space between the two. You're not sure whether the dancer sings or the singer dances. It freakin' soars.

The composer's last large orchestral piece, Estampes (prints) owes its existence to yet another Louisville commission. Martinů wrote it in Switzerland and said it described three Swiss landscapes. Along with the Sixth Symphony and the 3 Frescoes, it typifies his final rapprochement with Impressionism. The textures tend to the shimmering and misty, but on the whole the music seems tougher and tighter than most Impressionism. Martinů's years of athletic neoclassicism didn't entirely leave him.

The oboe concerto has become a repertory staple – for oboists, at any rate – along with the Vaughan Williams and the Strauss. Also a product of Martinů's final period, it nevertheless looks back to his neoclassic days. The opening is pure sunshine, and the oboe's entrance takes into an ecstatic pastoral world. The scoring is often chamber-light, which paradoxically adds to the intense elation of the music. Shadows enter the slow movement, a bit like Barber's Adagio in mood, although it achieves nowhere near that emotional weight. The finale leaps like lambs in Spring, as Martinů seems to shake one frisky tune after another out of his sleeve.

I've heard many performances of each of the pieces here. I've come generally to prefer the Supraphon recordings above others, particularly the ones led by Ancerl and Neumann, and at one time, at least, all these pieces were available on that label. Ironically, the Intermezzo appears only on this recording at the present time, at least in the U.S. Whitney and Harth (in the oboe concerto) lead compelling performances, although at times the symphony isn't as rhythmically tight as it needs to be, and the sound is a bit constricted, even in the stereo tracks. Still, the readings are quite fine, with Marion Gibson a lovely standout in the oboe concerto. I'd still try for Czechs on Supraphon, however. The only reason for getting this disc (and possibly duplicating other things in your collection) is the Intermezzo – nine minutes of pure wonderful. I'd do it, but I'm coo-coo for Martinů.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz