MARTINŮ: Vanishing Midnight. Ballade (after Böcklin’s picture, “Villa By the Sea”). Dream of the Past / Agnieszka Kopacka, pn; Sinfonia Varvosia; Ian Hobson, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0414
This, the third in a series of CDs by Ian Hobson of Martinů’s orchestral music, begins with a bona-fide masterpiece. The three-part suite Vanishing Midnight, finished in 1922, was the first of his works to be performed by the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich (though not in its entirety). The music is absolutely incredible: powerful, complex and at the same time appealing, it occupies the same sound-world as his 1955 masterpiece The Epic of Gilgamesh (which I reviewed earlier in this blog). Here Martinů expands his orchestral palette to encompass an entirely new world of sound, while at the same time taking a tip from Mahler in using only a small portion of the orchestra here and there for more intimate moments. Because of this, the music struck me as almost being like a concerto grosso in which the wind section here and the strings there play passages that contribute to the whole. It’s astonishing to consider that this is its world premiere recording.
As usual with conductor (and pianist) Ian Hobson, we get a clean, emotional but largely no-nonsense performance. There are no passages that linger or stop to smell the roses. Once the rhythmic impetus is set, the music moves on its own course from start to finish. In between, Hobson works hard to bring out the orchestral detail of the score the same way conductors like Rodziński did. He also does not indulge in bathos or other Romanticized touches. I believe this is the right approach; the Czechs, like the Hungarians, have long produced musicians and composers who are more interested in getting to the core of the music and not in trying to impress the listener with impressionistic touches.
In Vanishing Midnight the top line of the music that “leads” the harmonic changes, not the other way around. This is the opposite of the French impressionistic approach of Debussy or Koechlin. Even when the music becomes quiet, as towards the end of the first movement, clarity rather than an opaque sound is the rule. That being said, the central movement, titled “The Blue Hour,” sounds somewhat like the exotic music of Koechlin’s The Jungle Book. This was the piece that Talich conducted in 1923, and it was repeated in a performance by Karel Kalik in 1926. To quote from Michael Crump’s excellent liner notes:
For many years, Vanishing Midnight was thought not to have survived intact. In the first edition of his catalogue of Martinů’s works, Harry Halbreich listed only ‘Modrá hodina’, stating that the piece was the central movement of a larger triptych. He went on to state that the first movement, ‘Satyři vháji cypřišu’ (‘Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses’), was lost, but that orchestral parts for the second movement and indeed the third (‘Stíny’ – ‘Shadows’) were housed in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra archive in the Rudolfinum in Prague.
Yet somehow the music was found, although Crump doesn’t tell us where or how the missing first movement (“Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses”) was discovered. The music is, as I say, quite astonishing. Crump gives us some detail of the musical progression and how Martinů put it together:
‘Satyrs’ begins in D flat major, the violas embellishing the seventh of the chord with trills above and below it. Muted horns sound in the distance, and a cloud of polytonal semiquavers issues from the violins and dispels in an instant, like ‘the scent of blossoms rising from the garden’. Longer string lines emerge, each beginning with a descending perfect fourth, inherited from Dream of the Past and destined to head the majority of the important themes in Vanishing Midnight. Presently a solo violin delivers a languid theme, followed by a four-bar solo for trumpet, lifted from Dream of the Past with only minor rhythmic adjustments. A brief reminiscence of the opening bars rounds out this introduction, setting a precedent for the entire movement: each new episode that arises during its course is fatally attracted and destroyed by the gravitational pull of the opening bars, like objects on an event-horizon succumbing to the irresistible strength of a black hole.
The bulk of ‘Satyrs’ is devoted to the symphonic elaboration of a slow waltz delivered at first by solo flute and then clarinet. This melody has also been heard within Dream of the Past, somewhat concealed within the long oboe solo towards the start (the clearest resemblance is found between 9:03 and 1:59). In the earlier work, this phrase is a mere incident, but in ‘Satyrs’ its symphonic credentials are revealed and exploited at once; it is developed through a gradual accelerando by the oboe and then by full strings, capped by a thrilling Maestoso and a tumultuous chromatic descent. Once more, the textures of the opening return to absorb the energy of this impressive outburst, though now the distant sounds are all but drowned out by massive swells from the percussion.
A sudden turn to C major announces the second half of the movement, generally swifter in tempo and perhaps portraying the ‘distant celebrations’ of the programme. This section introduces a two-bar theme on the trumpet, another theme with a kinship to material from Dream of the Past (compare 8:54 with 7:36). Again, Martinů is keen to develop this old material in its new surroundings; the trumpet snippet alternates with snatches of the earlier waltz theme, later becoming the springboard for an idyll high in the strings as well as a more urgent sequel in the woodwind.
But it’s not just “Satyrs” that’s great; so, too, is the third movement, “Shadows,” which has even more complex counterpoint and a highly dramatic, surging pulse and top line that belie the impression conveyed by its title.
Conversely, the earlier Ballade (1915) was one of only two pieces by Martinů inspired by a piece of visual art (the other was the later Frescoes), in this case Arnold Böcklin’s various paintings of Villa by the Sea. The cypress trees in all of them are bent to the strong ocean winds, and a woman gazes pensively out to sea. Martinů tried to capture this feeling in dark colors and a feeling as if the sea winds were moving relentlessly towards the villa, only to fall back when the winds recede. This is by no means an immature work; on the contrary, it is beautifully and well crafted, and in addition to the use of a piano there is a long, forlorn viola solo. Hobson manages to capture the lonely quality of this music beautifully, as well as the more powerful moments that surge in and out of the score. Moreover, Martinů “builds” the music in stages of intensity as he develops his themes. Oddly, however, the solo piano, playing softly, rides the music out to the end. It’s a heck of a piece, and this, too, is a world premiere recording.
Two versions of “Villa by the Sea,” 1865 and 1878.
Dreams of the Past comes from 1920 and, although it may be the slightest work on this set it is by no means a poor piece. It is, however, more resolutely tonal and impressionistic in character, making it sound, perhaps, less Martinů-like than the other works here. There is a louder middle section with a tambourine(!) that acts as an effective contrast. Later on we hear swirling winds around a solo oboe, followed in turn by a surprisingly dark, sinister orchestral passage. The piece does, however, end quietly with the winds playing and soft strings in the upper register playing in the background.
This is a simply wonderful CD and a great addition to Martinů’s legacy.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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