Friday 8 July 2016

Ian Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia provide a really fine performance of Martinů’s early ballet, Stín (‘The Shadow’) on volume two of Toccata Classics Early Orchestral Works series

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was born in Polička on the Bohemia-Moravia border in the Pardubice Region of the Czech Republic. He studied at the Prague Conservatory before working as a teacher and orchestral violinist before going to Paris in 1923. It was there that he studied with Albert Roussel (1869-1937) and developed an interest in the neo-classical style as well as jazz, later using Czech subjects in the ballets and operas that he produced.

In 1940 he left Paris for New York where he produced five of his symphonies. After the war he divided his time between the USA and Europe, dying in Liestal, Switzerland whilst undergoing treatment for cancer. Martinů always kept in contact with family and friends in his home town as can be seen in a fascinating book published by Toccata Press Martinů’s Letters Home

There are many recordings of Martinů mature works in the catalogue but there are precious few of his earlier compositions. Toccata Classics have sought to put this right with a series of recordings featuring his Early Orchestral Works. Volume One in this series brought us the Prélude en forme de scherzo (1929, orch. 1930),
Orchestral movement (1913–14), Village Feast (1907), Nocturno 1 (1914–15) and the Little Dance Suite (1919) with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by the Leeds International Piano Competition First Prize winner and Artur Rubinstein and Vienna-Beethoven competition silver medallist Ian Hobson.

Volume Two has just been released by Toccata Classics and is given over entirely to Martinů’s Ballet in One Act, Stín again with Ian Hobson conducting Sinfonia Varsovia  with Dorota Szczepańska (offstage soprano) , Anna Maria Staśkiewicz (violin)  and Agnieszka Kopacka (piano).

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There is a generous quantity of orchestral music that Martinů wrote between his late teens and early thirties that is pretty well unknown with much of it unperformed.

Such is the case with Stín (‘The Shadow’) - Ballet in One Act, H102 (1916), which has its world premiere in this recording.  The scenario is that of a girl dancing with her shadow in the presence of Death for which the composer provided music that is surprisingly buoyant. It has important parts for a soprano, violin and piano.  

A horn opens the Introduction and is immediately joined by the orchestra in a really lovely theme before it shifts and slides around through some very fine passages, often wonderfully luminescent. Soprano, Dorota Szczepańska is heard, off-stage, vocalising over a light textured orchestra and harp in Song – the girl appears, out of which the solo violin of Anna Maria Staśkiewicz rises in a fine little variation. Pianist, Agnieszka Kopacka adds a fine texture along with a harp before the music rises to a terrific peak for the soprano after which the orchestra takes the music forward through some shifting harmonies that are so typically Martinů.

Ian Hobson finds some piquant rhythms as Girl’s dance arrives with the piano dominant through pizzicato strings. There are some more leisurely rhythmic passages as well as a richer textured, flowing section. There are some lovely woodwind moments of much beauty, luscious string textures and a waltz rhythm that develops a real swirl. Sinfonia Varsovia are terrific here with some lovely individual instrumental moments later.

Strings bring the Lento, a lovely gentle melody with a rhythmic touch added by the harp and a solo line from the violin. The music expands through the orchestra along with the piano with some really fine string textures. Later the violin returns with another solo line and a limpid rhythmic pulse from the harp.

The Allegretto takes up the theme in a light and transparent passage for piano and celeste before strings take over, building in energy and dynamics, through a terrific string passage that finds a lovely sway.

Moderato (di valse) brings many lovely variations on the waltz theme, the piano adding a rhythmic point before running through a rising scale over the orchestra

Ball game opens with a rising theme to which the piano adds little flourishes, extended through passages with brass dominating, adding a fine transparency. The theme is taken by piano and strings running through a short transition, The ball falls into the water and the girl sees her reflection into The shadow rises from the water and dances where there are lovely delicate, transparent textures. The woodwind bubble up beautifully over shimmering strings, the theme is taken by the piano before rising through a harmonically shifting passage. There is a solo for piano, a waltz variation, taken by the strings, then a solo violin passage over orchestra. Various wind instruments appear through the orchestral texture before the piano returns to take the theme languidly forward. Shimmering strings are heard before the piano joins to lead forward.

Strings and celeste bring a vibrant, buoyant Comodo (Allegro ma non troppo) to which the piano joins followed by a cor anglais before strings add a richness to vary the theme. There are some beautiful slower passages with lovely textures.

The strings slowly develop a rhythmic and lightly bouncing Tempo di Menuetto to which an oboe joins before the strings alone take the theme. Woodwind alternate the theme with strings before all combine together. The piano joins to add a sparkle before finding a lovely flow with some lovely harmonic shifts.

The Trio brings a staccato string passage to which the piano joins in an unusual dance theme. The solo violin joins to weave a longer line around the orchestra, finding a faster flow through some delightful passages.

The brief Vivace brings a fast, rhythmically bouncing theme that rises quickly through many variations before running into the Allegro and finding a bounding variation also with a rhythmically pointed theme. It travels through some finely controlled moments with subtly changing textures before the piano takes the theme, then woodwind as it slows. A horn appears with pizzicato strings before increasing in tempo to gallop into the Allegro vivace with woodwind bringing light textures. The strings take over to move the music on with passages for woodwind that are skilfully written with terrific textures and sonorities. Later the music finds a broader flow with the piano later adding a faster flourish.

There are dramatic, searing string phrases and a deep thundering piano line as Three dark figures appear in the background arrives. This is soon offset by a lighter, buoyant The dancing continues, becoming ever faster (Allegro vivace) with the music skipping lightly ahead. Pizzicato strings add a lovely texture along with woodwind. The violin returns over repeated piano chords in another unusual passage, bringing a lovely variation before rising in the orchestra to increase in tempo, building through some terrific passages with rich textures, full of drama before finding a luscious waltz.  

The music rises again in drama as it goes into The girl collapses exhausted but the shadow dances onwards towards the central dark figure, which covers the shadow in a cloak where suddenly, shimmering strings appear. The music swirls up with yet more drama, returning underscored by deep piano chords before falling to a hush on shimmering strings to go into the final section.

Soprano, Dorota Szczepańska is heard in the opening of The song is heard again from afar vocalising over a limpid piano and harp accompaniment. Soon the solo violin rises over the harp to weave a lovely melody before the soprano, piano and harp lead to the coda, the soprano rising before a hushed chord from the strings.

So much of Martinů’s mature voice is apparent here making this a real find worth adding to the Martinů recorded catalogue.

Ian Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia along with their soloists provide a really fine performance and receive an excellent recording from the Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio, Polish Radio, Warsaw.

There are first rate booklet notes.

See also: 


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