> MARTIN Complete piano music [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Complete Piano Music

Danse Grave (1940)
Guitare (1933)
Eight Preludes (1948)
Clair de Lune (1952)
Etude Rhythmique (1965)
Esquisse pour le Piano (1965)
Fantaisie sur des Rhythmes Flamenco (1973)
Daniel Spiegelberg (piano)
rec 1991?, AAD
GALLO CD-636 [54.22]


Martin is not a crowd-pleaser. Had he been born in the UK he would have been viewed as part of the benighted Cheltenham generation. Performances in Cheltenham would have been in the 1940s and 1950s but as the 1970s progressed he and his music would have lost its precarious footing and slipped from view. The music of Martin is known for sincerity, earnest qualities and sobriety; not for brilliance or ecstatic statement. The closest British parallel might be Rubbra. While Rubbra was a symphonist with eleven in his catalogue Martin had only one. Rubbra was Roman Catholic and Martin Protestant. However their music tends towards dour and dedicated. The uninitiated might brush it aside as dull. Neither Martin nor Rubbra wrote a great deal of music for solo piano but in this field the comparisons strain. Rubbra's piano music is of lowish profile - devotional rather than brilliant. Martin's piano music is wide-ranging in character. There are certain catalogue similarities however. Rubbra wrote a Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (with a middle movement dedicated to Holst in his death-year) as well as a single Piano Concerto (discounting a very early concerto). Martin wrote a Ballade for piano and orchestra and two piano concertos.

Spiegelberg is not a familiar name but his range and imagination seem well matched to Martin.

The Danse Grave is an early work which derives its character from the 'dompes' of Dowland and weaves this line with the Pavanes of Fauré and Ravel.

Guitare is a four movement suite written originally for Segovia but then transcribed by the composer for orchestra and for solo piano. Not at all surprisingly the music carries the stamp of the guitar. The first movement's ombrageous hispanicisms contrast with dazzling brightness. The Air recalls Danse Grave. The strumming of the Plainte is a direct tell-tale of the work's instrumental origins. The Gigue is gawkily insistent. The suite would go well with Lionel Sainsbury's Spanish pieces.

The quadripartite Flamenco Fantasy ends the disc and it too looks to Iberian origins. While Martin's son provoked in his father a delight in the bass tones of the electric guitar (surfacing in one of his last works) his daughter’s love of flamenco gave birth to a winter year’s immersion in recordings and concerts. The Fantasy was the result. The rhythms clash and struggle in this work with a complexity that others, pre-eminently Nancarrow, have solved with resort to the player-piano. Martin liked a challenge and passes his victory on to the pianist. The last two of the four sections are termed Soleares and Petenra and here the crabbed tension of the early stages of the dance are dissected in ominous steady grumbling and grunting impacts - quiet and loud.

The Eight Preludes are caring and grave. They in part pair neatly with Rubbra's piano music and with Rawsthorne's Bagatelles. This is Chopin refracted, pensive and jangling (allegretto tranquillo), dancingly like Rachmaninov in the fourth Prelude, in another deploying constant pearling runs of notes vivace; at one time satisfied with the stillness of Debussy crossed with Schoenberg (rather like the isolated Clair de Lune piece) and finally jazzy, clear-headed and gawkily angular. A steady all-elbows awkwardness extends to the Etude Rhythmique and the Esquisse.

I started by making comparisons with Rubbra. We should also look at another Swiss composer who is something of a Gallo speciality. Richard Flury was born six years later than Martin and died seven years earlier. Flury was an ultra-conservative musically coloured by his masters Hans Huber and Joseph Marx. Martin took a quite different route - prizing his own rather matte expressive language, much taken with Bach and choral music. His music still struggles for recognition with an armoury that lacks the qualities that instantly beguile. From the perspective of the twenty-first century Martin, blessed with a name that sounds too English and ordinary to be intriguing, is known by comparatively few yet is well respected and even loved by connoisseurs. His music carries the fibre and sincerity that will make it a natural target for the sort of revival that Bach had from Mendelssohn. Flury has the sincerity and as the generations roll forward the wholesale use of nineteenth century German romanticism will matter less and less. However I doubt, on the evidence of the two Gallo discs I have heard, that Flury has the intrinsic memorability and sense of the special that will make his music stand prominent in 2200.

Rob Barnett

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