Netopil Conducts Late Martinů

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MARTINŮ: Overture. Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca. The Rock. The Parables. Estampes / Prague Radio Symphony Orch.; Tomáš Netopil, cond / Supraphon SU4295-2

This recording, issued early last month, was yet another CD I had to dig deep in order to find. Happily, all of the music files were uploaded on YouTube, so then all I had to locate was a copy of the cover art and some semblance of liner notes. What I found online was the following:

The pieces Bohuslav Martinů composed between 1953 to 1958, towards the end of his life when he returned to Europe – Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, The Parables and Les Estampes – are profound, extraordinary, truly mature gems. Their brilliance, however, is yet to be fully appreciated. The director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Čížek, said: “The recording of mature Bohuslav Martinů works we have made with Tomáš Netopil is another contribution of ours dedicated to mapping the music of Czech 20th-century giants. There is never enough we can do for these composers and their creation!”

Most surprising, to me, was the opening Overture, a neoclassic piece if there ever was one, so much in the style of 1920s Stravinsky that it took me by surprise. Yet Martinů retains his own identity in this music by writing an original theme rather than “borrowing” from earlier composers, and his style of development is more complex as well as more orchestrally colorful than ‘20s Stravinsky. I’m also happy to report that as a conductor, Netopil is lively and energetic; he doesn’t let the musical grass grow underneath his feet. I did, however, feel that the sound of the recording was a bit too reverberant for my taste, but that’s not as important as the impact of the music.

With Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca we enter an entirely different world, the piece opening with really strange bitonal figures using divided strings and what sounds like an organ for color. Although the music is meant to depict frescoes by Piero della Francesca, none of them are given names; the movements are more traditionally titled “Andante poco moderato,” “Adagio” and “Poco allegro,” yet these are clearly little tone poems (a more musically advanced version, you might say, of Respighi’s Pines of Rome) but not, in the traditional sense, Czech music, and this is one reason why his works were undervalued by his own country of birth for so long. Smetana and Dvořák were at least 80% Czech in their use of themes and rhythms, Janáček about 45% so, but Martinů followed his own muse. Sometimes his music had a strong Czech flavor, but most of the time he was more cosmopolitan in his tastes. (He even wrote a couple of pieces using jazz rhythms in the 1940s.) Towards the end of the “Adagio,” for instance, Martinů uses the kind of widely-spaced intervals in a tonal setting that one automatically identifies with Aaron Copland, and there’s a brief theme in the middle of the last movement that sounds strangely like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The Rock also uses more Copland-isms in the opening theme,. though the music develops in fast passages using a lot of string tremolo. I found this to be a fairly weak piece for him.

Things pick up, however, in the three-part Parables, where the composer reverts to his wonderful and original bitonal style. Interestingly, the movement subtitles have nothing to do with religion; the first is The Parable of a Sculpture, the second The Parable of a Garden and the third The Parable of a Labyrinth. Yet I noted a problem as the music progressed: it began to sound in places a bit too much like movie music, particularly in The Parable of a Garden but also in the latter part of The Parable of a Labyrinth.

In the Estampes we get more creative and original music, varied in themes, texture and meter. Yet in the second and third pieces we hear some rather conventional music, thus this is an uneven piece.

In some ways, then, this is a disappointing collection: some of the music is excellent, some good, and some rather routine and formulaic. All are played well, however, and they are certainly not conventional Martinů.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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