Classics on Marimba
Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895 – 1968)
Toccata, Op. 83 [11:48]
Notturno sull’acqua, Op. 82 a [8:05]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)
Partita No. 2 for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1004:
Sonata No. 2 for solo violin in A minor, BWV 1003:
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810 – 1849)
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 [8:21]
Franz WAXMAN (1906 – 1967)
Randall THOMPSON (1899 – 1984)
“Choose Something Like a Star” from Frostiana [6:35]
Fumito Nunoya (marimba)
Hiroya Honda (marimba)
Momoko Shano (piano)
rec. September 2015, Inagi i-plaza Hall, Tokyo; March 2016, Biwako Hall, Shiga, Japan
OEHMS CLASSICS OC1859 [64:42]
“The marimba is a percussion instrument consisting of a set of wooden bars struck with mallets to produce musical tones. Resonators suspended underneath the bars amplify their sound. The bars of a chromatic marimba are arranged like the keys of a piano, with the groups of 2 and 3 accidentals raised vertically, overlapping the natural bars to aid the performer both visually and physically” (Wikipedia).
The instrument was developed in Central America by African slaves and it is first mentioned in historic sources in 1680. In 1821 it was proclaimed the national instrument of Guatemala. In classical music it has been in use since the mid-1900s. The pioneer was Darius Milhaud with his Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone in 1947. Among other important composers for the instrument can be mentioned Janáček, Orff, Henze, Boulez and Steve Reich.
My interest in the instrument is derived from my many visits to Helsinki, where one can frequently see and hear marimbists on street corners in the city centre.
None of the compositions on the present disc were conceived for marimba and admittedly they sound very different from the originals. Fumito Nunoya describes in the liner notes how he got the idea for the album. He heard on the car radio a cellist playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Toccata and was so fascinated by what he heard that he had to stop the car to listen. The composition was written in 1935 for the famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky but Nunoya heard it played by Nancy Green and was fascinated by the way she ‘sings’ on the cello. The marimba is not a ‘singing’ instrument. When you hit a note the sound decays quickly and if you want to sustain the sound you have to strike several times to fill the space between the notes. This made it necessary to adjust the music slightly to reach the goal, a singing marimba.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is probably best known for his many compositions for guitar, triggered when he met Segovia in 1932. He also wrote a cello concerto for Piatigorsky. In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II he left fascist-ruled Italy and settled in the US, where, with the help of Jascha Heifetz, he got a contract with MGM as composer of film music. The Toccata is a tripartite work: Introduction, Aria and Finale played without a break. It opens quite mysteriously, slowly but then follows the Introduction proper, fast, rhythmical and quite virtuosic and here the motifs are introduced, motifs that are repeated and varied throughout the composition. The Aria is slow and dreamy, while the Finale is again fast, rhythmic and virtuosic.
Notturno sull’acqua, composed in the same year, 1935, has a subtitle, ‘on the banks of the river Arno at Gonfolina, one evening in June’. It is an atmospheric piece; one can feel the water shimmering in the rays of the setting sun.
These two pieces are accompanied by piano. In the two Bach pieces the marimba is all on its own. The famous D minor Chaconne is of course a challenge for every violinist and transcribing it for marimba is a bold adventure. But Mr Nunoya has all the technical accomplishment needed and the almost 14-minute-long work is a tour de force. The Andante from the A minor sonata is poetic and calm and here the marimba sings again. In Chopin’s Barcarolle, one of his last major works, a second marimba is introduced and we get a fuller sound and wider dynamics.
Like Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Franz Waxman was one of many Europeans who left for the United States when the fascist powers grew stronger, and like his Italian colleague he came to Hollywood and became one of the foremost film composers, winning two Academy Awards. He also worked for MGM for some years. The Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra was composed in 1946 for Jascha Heifetz and is probably his best known work. It has been recorded numerous times, not only in the original form with orchestra, but also with piano and transcribed for viola and cello, but this is probably the first time for marimba and piano. It is a splendid showpiece also with the timid marimba in the foreground and should become a favourite piece to demonstrate the instrument’s capacity with a first-class player.
The final piece, Choose Something Like a Star, is the seventh movement from Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, composed in 1959 for mixed chorus and piano by Randall Thompson, the American composer best known for his choral writing. Thompson was a great melodist and this music rounds off this interesting disc very charmingly.
If you are a marimba fan, this disc should be obligatory listening; if you are not, you might well become one after hearing it.