Blecha-Wells & Kim Revel in Martinů’s “Small Storms”

NV6092.20170228105229

SMALL STORMS / MARTINŮ: Variations on a Theme of Rossini. Ariette for Cello & Piano. 7 Arabesques for Cello & Piano. Suite Miniature. Nocturnes for Cello & Piano. Variations on a Slovakian Theme / Meredith Blecha-Wells, cellist; Sun Min Kim, pianist / Navona NV6092

Here’s an absolutely delightful CD with a theme, that being the charming but small-scale music that Bohuslav Martinů wrote for cello and piano. What makes the album so special is not just that Martinů’s music is so attractive and imaginative, though it is, nor that Meredith Blecha-Wells and Sun Min Kim are such excellent musicians, but that they’re having so much sheer fun with the music that it is infectious from the very first note and never lets up.

Even as slight a piece as the 1:44 Ariette for Cello & Piano has something to say, and Blecha-Wells and Kim have something to say about it. Of course, since most of this music is of a light nature, it was difficult for me to judge what their playing would be like in something more substantial. Sometimes exuberant players don’t always treat such music with more depth. But I’m not reviewing anything of that nature here, and the present release is just so good that I could scarcely contain my joy in listening to them. The third of the 7 Arabesques is perhaps a bit more subtle in expression, and yes, they do play that very well, so perhaps my fears are ungrounded.

As for these Martinů’s scores—all entirely new to me—they reinforce my view that he was certainly one of the greatest and most enjoyable composers of the 20th century. Yes, he utilized Slavic folk elements in his music, particularly the unusual harmonies or modes, but his many decades in America also led him to pick up on several Americanisms, particularly those borrowed from popular music and jazz. Here and there throughout these pieces one hears a rhythmic feel that is quintessentially American (like Arabesque No. 4, Allegro or the sixth and last piece of the Suite Miniature), and he absolutely revels in such moments. And every collection or suite seems to have its own character, despite the proclivity towards brisk tempos and a light mood.

If you think that Martinů’s Nocturnes would be in the tradition of Chopin’s, think again. They are of mixed tempos, the first being marked Andantino and the last Allegretto, and once again he simply delights in fooling the ear into thinking the music is going one way when in fact it goes another. Sometimes his harmonies move neither up nor down, but actually sideways; in the Andantino he opens several chromatic trap doors through which the music falls, trying desperately to find its harmonic footing amidst its playful atmosphere. Only in the second nocturne, marked Lento, does Martinů use a pace similar to Chopin’s, but the injection of Czech folk harmonies and astringent open chords bowed on the cello make it stand out. As the piece goes on, he does bring in a somewhat romantic melody, but it’s neither sentimental nor cloying. In this piece, however, I felt that pianist Kim got somewhat deeper into the music than the cellist, beautiful though her playing was. The last of the four nocturnes has about as much to do with the moon or the night as a jig, but it’s absolutely delightful music.

Variations on a Slovakian Theme brings us to the final work on this CD, with Martinů again finding a way to work through his music in novel and unexpected ways. Here the sweep of the music is the defining factor in its performance style, pushing the cello and piano along in waves and eddies of sound.

All in all, a splendid and surprising disc, well recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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