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Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Concerto for seven wind instruments (1949) [19:01]
Études for string orchestra (1955-6) [18:55]
Petite Symphonie Concertante (1944-5) [19:39]
Violin concerto (1950-1) [29:50]
In terra pax (1944) [46:50]
Pierre Jamet (harp), Doris Rossiaud (piano), Germaine Vaucher-Clerc (harpsichord)
Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin)
Ursula Buckel (soprano), Marga Höffgen (contralto), Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Pierre Mollet (baritone), Jakob Stämpfli (bass)
L’Union chorale de la Tour de Peilz
Chœur des Dames de Lausanne
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernst Ansermet
rec. March 1951 (Petite, mono), May 1955 (violin, mono), September-November 1961 (wind, Études, stereo), September-October 1963 (pax, stereo), Victoria Hall, Geneva
No texts or translations
ELOQUENCE 482 4997 [57:53 & 76:50]

I find that Frank Martin’s sinuous melodies, pungent harmonies, crisp rhythms make him one of the most beguiling of twentieth century composers. A slight touch of melancholy increases his appeal, and his work is underpinned by a firm religious faith. However, he seems hardly ever to be performed in the UK. Fortunately, his cause has been well served by recordings, from such conductors as Matthias Bamert, Riccardo Chailly, Daniel Reuss, Jac van Steen and, above all, Thierry Fischer. But his first champion was Ernest Ansermet, and here are his Decca recordings of Martin in their latest outing. They were previously issued as a Double Decca (which added Martin’s Passacaille in a performance by Karl Münchinger to this collection), and the first disc on its own was reissued a few years ago. These are still available as downloads. Ansermet’s other recordings of Martin have been reissued on Cascavelle.

I have to say I was not sure what I would make of these recordings. Ansermet knew Martin personally and conducted thirteen of his premieres, but his star has faded a good deal since the early days of Decca, and I always had the suspicion that some of his success was due to brilliant Decca engineering rather than outstanding conducting or orchestral playing. Anyway, for these recordings I need not have been concerned. We begin with the Concerto for seven wind instruments.  I was immediately taken by the sparkling clarity of the (unnamed) wind soloists and the sympathetic acoustic of the Victoria Hall. This is a three-movement work, which displays all the qualities I noted at the beginning. It sits happily alongside Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and Martinů’s Double Concerto as an attractive modern concerto grosso.

The Etudes which follow are a set of five pieces for string orchestra, featuring different technical features; for example, there is one for pizzicato and another for fugue. Despite this, the work is not in the least forbidding and is an attractive addition to the repertoire for string orchestra.

Next comes the Petite Symphonie Concertante, Martin’s best-known work. Three solo instruments, a harp, a harpsichord and a piano, are joined by a double string orchestra. The kind of harpsichord Martin had in mind was the large, heavy one which Wanda Landowska, among others, played in the period when the instrument was being revived. I wonder whether the choice of soloists was partly suggested by Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta, with a harpsichord adding to the deliciously contrasted timbres and textures. Dating from 1951, this is by some way the earliest recording in this set, and is in mono, but the performance is fine and the sound excellent, only a slight lack of body in the string and resonance in the piano betraying its age.

The second disc begins with Martin’s Violin Concerto. Martin wrote this just after completing his work on his Shakespeare opera La Tempête, and it shares its magical quality. Now that the concertos of Bartók, Prokofiev and, especially, Szymanowski, have come in from the cold to join the standard repertoire, there is no reason why this concerto by Martin should not join them. It is a big work, in the usual three movements. This is another mono recording, though again of good quality. Schneiderhan is best known to me from his luminous recording of the Beethoven concerto with Jochum. He does the work proud, with an impressive range of tone, from the wispily atmospheric to the full-blooded, and the orchestra provide admirable support. I should note that Schneiderhan recorded the concerto again, in 1971, this time under Martin himself and in stereo (Jecklin-Disco 632-2). The two performances are pretty similar, and Martin as conductor adopts almost exactly the same tempi as did Ansermet, though, not surprisingly, the more recent recording is better technically.

Finally, we have the short oratorio In terra pax. This was written towards the end of the Second World War and anticipates its conclusion. It is in four parts, using Biblical texts, beginning and ending with passages from the Book of Revelation and on the way including passages from Isaiah and the Gospels. It moves gradually from a sombre beginning to a joyful end. It is an occasional work which has outlasted its occasion and it leaves a strong impression. The soloists here are a strong team and the two choirs do a grand job.

Although there are more modern performances of all the works here, by some of the conductors I have listed above, these performances have a unique authority deriving from Martin’s trust in Ansermet to achieve what he wanted. I think many or possibly all of these might be first recordings, but I have not been able to check this. The original Decca recordings come over well – I don’t know whether they needed much or any cleaning up – and the sleeve-note, in English only, is interesting but says nothing about the Petite Symphonie Concertante or the Violin Concerto. Unfortunately, there are no texts or translations supplied for In terra pax, but as a consolation there are reproductions of the original LP covers.

Stephen Barber



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