Martinu: Chamber Music With Flute / Fenwick Smith

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MARTINU Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano. 1 Flute Sonata. 2 Sextet for Piano and Winds. 3 Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano 4 Fenwick Smith (fl); Sally Pinkas (pn); 1 Haldan Martinson (vn); 2,3 John Ferrillo (ob); 2,3 Thomas Martin (cl); 2,3 Richard Ranti, 2,3 Suzanne Nelson (bsn); 4 Rhonda Ryder (vc) NAXOS 8.572467 (68:50)

Extremely prolific, Bohuslav Martin? composed almost 400 works, including a great many songs and pieces for piano and a wide array of chamber ensembles. In the sampling presented on this CD, the flute is given a star turn in three of the four pieces, while serving as an equal partner in the Sextet.

The Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano, composed in 1936 and consisting of four movements, demonstrates the overt influence of Ravel and of Martin??s mentor Roussel. It opens with a chipper, cheeky Allegro poco moderato, followed by a pastoral Adagio in 3/4 time. Next comes an energetic Allegretto, a scherzo and trio in standard A-B-A form, with syncopated rhythms and accents suggestive of both Czech dance music and jazz, two idioms frequently used by the composer throughout his career. The concluding Moderato opens with an extended and somewhat discordant piano solo, followed by several discrete sections that, for this listener at least, do not cohere; this rather unsatisfying movement seems like a needless add-on that does not fit with the rest of the work, which forms a quite satisfying whole without it. As so often with Martin?, there are numerous quirky little byways at various points that bring to mind Robert Frost’s allusion to roads not taken.

The Flute Sonata from 1945 has a traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast layout. The initial Allegro Moderato is immediately recognizable as quintessential Martin? in its angular melodic and harmonic contours, followed by a solemn, stately Adagio. Reflecting the composer’s years of exile in the U.S. during World War II, the closing Allegro poco moderato suggests the influence of American dance rhythms à la Aaron Copland before passing to a whirlwind of runs and flurries. At several points it incorporates the call of the whippoorwill, heard by Martin? at various locales in New England.

An early work dating from 1929, the five-movement Sextet for Piano and Winds opens with a Preludium: Poco andante that presents a series of shifting moods, difficult to capture and describe. The succeeding Adagio, darker, more meditative, is slightly reminiscent of Sibelius. Succeeding this are two dance movements marked Scherzo: Allegro vivo and Blues, respectively sub-captioned Divertimento I and II, both characterized by spiky, jazzy rhythms and cascading runs. A spirited, upbeat Allegro finale brings the piece to an ebullient close.

The three-movement Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano from 1944 is close kin to the Flute Sonata of the following year. A Poco allegretto opening has a genial spirit and infectious motoric rhythms. The following Adagio starts in a quietly reflective mood and then shifts to a more declamatory bardic vein before coming to a peaceful close. After a brief slow introduction, the concluding Andante–Allegretto scherzando launches its main section with a turbulent, running first theme that alternates with a more measured second subject, though energetic bustle predominates throughout.

These are extremely able performances that fully capture all the elusive quicksilver elements of the composer’s style. Flutist Fenwick Smith has a bright, penetrating tone that is never harsh or shrill, and has a sure rapport with his various colleagues. The sound quality and booklet notes are up to typical solid Naxos standards. As far as recorded competition is concerned, there are more than 20 recordings in print of the Flute Sonata, mostly in mixed flute anthology CDs rather than discs devoted to Martin?; thus one’s choice may be primarily determined by the couplings, though as an individual performance this is competitive with any others I’ve heard. The most direct overall competition to this issue is a Hungaroton disc with the Forrás Ensemble, featuring the Flute Sonata, the Trio, and the Sextet; however, while those performances are also of a high caliber, it is a full-price CD costing twice as much, making this issue an easy preference. Other performances of the Sextet are available on an exorbitantly priced Nuance CD, a full-priced MDG CD (blasted by Barry Brenesal in Fanfare 30:6, who recommended the Hungaroton performance instead), and a mid-priced Supraphon CD by the Prague Wind Quintet, specifically devoted to Martin??s jazz-inspired compositions. The Trio is offered in performances issued by Klavier (reviewed by me elsewhere in this issue), BIS (full price), Hyperion (a two-CD budget issue with the Dartington Ensemble that also includes La Revue de Cuisine , the Nonet, the Madrigal Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Piano, and other Madrigal compositions), and an earlier Naxos release with the Feinstein Ensemble that also includes the Flute Sonata. The other sonata is available at full price from Kontrapunkt, and midprice from Analekta (on a CD also including the Flute Sonata). I prefer the present performance to any of these; it is more energetic than the Feinstein, and far more characterful than the glibly superficial and harshly recorded Dartington traversal (defects afflicting that entire two-CD set). In sum, this is a top-drawer recommendation for anyone attracted either to Martin? or to 20th-century flute chamber music repertoire.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

It’s rather unusual, and therefore welcome, to find a disc devoted so squarely to Martin?’s chamber works involving the flute Normally one finds that companies prefer a more across the board approach, mixing the flute works with, say, the Madrigal sonatas or with La Revue de Cuisine or with the Nonet. Or one finds a presentation of the Czech composer’s works in the context of near contemporaries, such as Poulenc and Prokofiev, in an exploration specifically of the powerfully attractive Flute Sonata. So, it’s pleasing to find a disc such as this, which has the confidence to focus closely.
The Sonata for flute, violin and piano H.254 was written in 1936 and dedicated to the wife of Marcel Moÿse, whose husband, Marcel, gave the premiere in a ‘family affair’ performance with Louis Moÿse and Blanche Moÿse Honegger. Interestingly a 1938 performance by this august trio has survived and was issued on a Martin? Society promotional CD in 2005. The present Naxos performance is good but sounds somewhat ‘sewing machine’ in places, especially in comparison with the more specialised Gallic charm of the older trio’s performance. The slow movement, though, has tenderness and a real sense of affection and it seems pedantic, given the finesse of the playing, to note that the Moÿse performance had a more aloofly yielding introspection in this movement. Where I do feel a decided superiority in the older performance is in the finale, where the Naxos trio make rather too much of a contrast when moving into the B section; it sounds much better when, as with the Moÿse, you slide into it without too much fuss.
Probably the best known of the quartet in this selection is the Flute Sonata. Fenwick Smith and Sally Pinkas are assured guides but take a decidedly less incisive approach than, say, Jean-Pierre Rampal and John Steele Ritter [SK53106, in a very mixed mainly vocal recital by Kathleen Battle]. I prefer Ritter’s more arresting pianism and the greater sense of characterisation generated by the Rampal-Ritter duo generally. Perhaps the Naxos duo honour the finale’s Allegro poco moderato injunction just a touch better in the slightly steadier tempo they adopt - but Rampal does shape the birdsong more inventively in any case.
The Sextet for piano and winds is the earliest work here, dating from 1929. It’s cast in five brief movements, and utilises baroque punctuation adeptly. There’s a beautiful Adagio, and a Blues in which the bassoon imitates a night club saxophone; then a vivacious finale. This Sextet reminds us of La Revue de Cuisine, especially in its use of the vampy and Stride-patterned piano contributions and the infectious liveliness of the writing. The Trio for flute, cello and piano H.300 (1944) is an attractive work, and sports one truly memorable idea - the flute recitative over accompanying cello pizzicato figures. It’s a fluid and leisurely piece, in all respects, not from the top drawer but marked by consummate craftsmanship.
Well recorded over a period of years in two locations, these performances have been artfully brought together. None is a front-ranker, quite, but all are highly personable.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International 

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572467

  • UPC: 747313246779

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Bohuslav Martinů

  • Performer: Fenwick Smith, Haldan Martinson, John Ferrillo, Rhonda Ryder, Richard Ranti, Sally Pinkas, Suzanne Nelson, Thomas Martin