Martinu: Early Orchestral Works Vol 1 / Hobson

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Martinu’s pre-Paris output remains virtually unknown, unpublished, and unperformed. There is a lot of it, and Toccata Classics plans six discs devoted to the orchestral works, an exciting prospect as it should permit us to trace the development of one of the 20th century’s most interesting composers. Aside from the jazzy, 1929 Prélude en forme de scherzo, arranged by the composer from a short (ninety second) piano piece, all of the music here predates 1920. Two of the composer’s main inspirations, impressionism and Czech folk music, are clearly in evidence, but have yet to be welded together into his mature style.

The two impressionist pieces are Nocturno 1 and the untitled Orchestral Movement H90. It’s amazing what you can do with a piano, harp, and celeste in the orchestra, along with some yummy, vaguely mysterious harmony (sound clip). Simple forms, yearning English horn solos, and atmospheric string tremolos complete a pair of very pretty pictures. Village Feast is a short collection of folk dances for flute and strings, while the Little Dance Suite (1919) is anything but. Lasting more than 40 minutes, it is effectively a four-movement symphony in the “song and dance” folk style. It’s longer than any of Martinu’s later symphonies, and the music is wholly delightful. The biggest movement is the scherzo, in which the outer sections are scored for winds and percussion (second sound clip), the trio section for strings alone. It’s a major work; Martinu fans will rejoice.

The performances are very good indeed. Ian Hobson is a reliable and enthusiastic guide to this unknown repertoire, and the Sinfonia Varsovia plays with its usual expertise. The orchestra’s wind and string soloists are all top-notch, and the engineering is warm and well-balanced. This is going to be a series eminently worth following, one which promises many wonderful discoveries (like the ballet Istar). Stay tuned.

-- David Hurwitz,

These are all first recordings of these early orchestral works by Martinu. The notes indicate that, with the sole exception of the orchestral arrangement of the brief 1929 Prelude for piano, all of these works date from the period 1907-1919. Annotator Aleš Brezina (director of the Bohuslav Martinu Institute in Prague) states bluntly that, “Knowing well the original sources and the editorial difficulties they involve, I have to express my deep admiration for the detective and archaeological skills…of the editor of most of these scores, Michael Crump.” Crump’s own, longer notes which follow indicate that the “handful of musicologists” who have examined these scores considered them to be “incomplete, incompetent or downright unplayable” due to the manuscripts having been left in “a rather poor condition” requiring “a considerable amount of editorial intervention.” Thus this CD, a splendid beginning to the orchestral works of this composer, is the first in an intended series of six to be issued.

Whatever the problems involved in the transcription and/or completion of these orchestral scores, and I concede that they may indeed have been considerable, the end result is a stunning vindication of hard work plus an inspired interpreter. Readers of my writings will know that I am and have been for some time a huge fan of Ian Hobson, both as pianist (specifically in his long-ranging series of Chopin releases on Zephyr) and conductor. Despite a tendency to play everything in a fairly straightforward manner with very little in the way of rubato or other modifications to the musical line, Hobson’s deeply ingrained sensitivity as a performer comes through in everything he does. For those who like to make comparisons, I would say that to some extent Hobson is like David Zinman with greater sensitivity to detail and dynamics. This is not a criticism of Zinman, whose work I have often found to be quite valid in itself, but by and large I find Hobson’s work just that much more sensitive to musical feeling, and this CD is no exception.

A good example of Hobson’s excellence may be heard not only in the slow works here (the Orchestral movement or the Nocturno ) but also in the pieces that Martinu based on folk music, Posvícení or (Harvest Festival) and the Little Dance Suite. Here, despite his being British, Hobson does a fine job of capturing the unusual rhythms of Czech music, thus he is able to project its underlying folk nature without the feeling of the rhythm being slightly “off.” Perhaps in this case, however, Hobson had the understanding and feeling of the musicians as well, since the Sinfonia Varsovia is an Eastern European orchestra of some distinction, being an augmented version of the former Polish Chamber Orchestra. Moreover, I must give high praise to the engineers, Gabriela Blicharz and Lech Dudzik, who managed to capture exceptionally clear yet slightly ambient sound for the group.

This is certainly a fine collection of early Martinu works. Highly recommended to fans of the composer and/or conductor.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: TOCC0156

  • UPC: 5060113441560

  • Label: Toccata

  • Composer: Bohuslav Martinů

  • Conductor: Ian Hobson

  • Performer: Andrzej Krzyzanowski, Artur Paciorkiewicz, Jakub Haufa