on 12 August 2011
I'm a great admirer of the music of the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) and there is some fine music on this disc though not all of it shows him at his best. The First Piano Concerto dates from 1933-34 and was premiered by Gieseking, no less. Although not strictly atonal, it is often not easy to define a key-centre. The fast music is lean, rhythmic and exciting, the texture often contrapuntal. Already some of Martin's fingerprints can be identified, repeated notes and trills in the piano writing for example. The melancholic chromatic tune moving by step over a repeated chordal accompaniment (or, in this case, a drumbeat) with which this concerto opens is certainly characteristic. Martin didn't feel his music should be analysed as it was the "message" which was important. This concerto is not an easy listen, however, and, as I always like to know what's going on in any piece, I'll give a few pointers. The first movement, which is rather oddly proportioned, opens with a 3 1/4 minute orchestral "exposition". The movement's main idea is stated at once by the flute. A new idea on the oboe arrives at 1 min 57 secs. When the soloist enters the opening idea is developed. At 4 mins 52 secs a section developing the oboe idea begins and a march tune derived from a brass motif in the "exposition" is heard at 5 mins 40 secs and, in a fuller version, at 7 mins 1 sec. The movement is framed by the opening melody which returns minus the piano on the lower strings at 7 mins 14 secs. There is a short cadenza for the soloist.
The slow movement is dominated by its opening oboe theme which is then extended by the soloist duetting with a bassoon. The upper strings (sounding a little thin here) repeat the opening melody at 2 mins 36 secs and at 4 mins 21 secs the music with which the soloist enters returns. Apparently, Martin toyed with the idea of subtitling this concerto the "Romantique", an epithet which would have suited this movement.
The finale opens with a cheeky Petrushkian fanfare derived from the concerto's opening flute melody. Sure enough, at 1 min 53 secs, the music slows and this melody returns on the piano. The final section is again based on the flute theme.
The Second Concerto (1968-1969) was commissioned by the soloist on this recording, Paul Badura-Skoda, who once recorded it with Martin himself conducting. It is a much more extrovert work than its predecessor and once you get past the rather self-conscious virtuosic opening, it is much more approachable, largely because its material is so much more easily assimilated. Indeed, the second subject of the first movement, which is first heard on the saxophone, is rather catchy! The central development creates a magical atmosphere in spite of Badura-Skoda not being an ideally fluent soloist.
The slow movement is an intense chaconne-like movement. The idea it is built on is very characteristic of the composer as is its treatment. It is a movement whose logic becomes apparent after a few hearings...though you'll never come to love it! The mood does relax towards the end, however.
Although the finale is largely dominated by motoric rhythms and syncopated melodic material, there is a contrasting lyrical strain.
All in all, the two piano concertos don't show Martin at his best. The First is just too elusive melodically and the Second is inclined to brashness. I'm not sure that it was wise of Martin to attempt a virtuoso piece but that is what Badura-Skoda had requested.
The 17 minute "Ballade", however, which dates from 1939 is a superb work. It is much the best music on the disc. After the characteristic opening (don't worry if your attention wanders at a first hearing!), once the allegro starts Martin's imagination takes flight. There are plenty of pithy melodic ideas and some wonderfully poetic moments. Try, for example, the return of the opening idea, now on the oboe and with a hypnotic piano accompaniment at 8 mins 11 secs. This piece also has a sense of organic growth largely absent from the concertos.
The disc also includes the "Danse de la Peur", an extract from a ballet, "Die Blaue Blume", which Martin wrote in 1935 but which was not produced. He arranged it for two pianos and orchestra. The slow opening section with its long 'cello theme is typical of the composer. The music gradually becomes more excited, motoric rhythms and repeated melodic fragments dominating until, at the climax, it suddenly stops dead. This would have been quite a coup de theatre, of course! The piece concludes by referring to the music with which it began.
Neither soloist is ideally fluent and, as I have suggested, the strings do sound a bit thin at times. The recording is good but the piano is a little too closely balanced so that some of the more poetic writing does not make its full effect. However, whatever you do, don't overlook the "Ballade".
By the way, after the marvellous "Petite Symphonie Concertante", the next of Martin's concertante work to explore is the Violin Concerto, one of the greatest of the 20th century, and then the 'Cello Concerto. For a keyboard concerto, I would rank the Harpsichord Concerto higher than either of those for piano.