Like many in Switzerland, Frank Martin had roots in both the French and German-speaking cultures of his country. Musical life in his home city of Geneva was influenced by immigrants from Germany. The son of a pastor, Martin early developed a special interest in the works of J.S. Bach. He later said that hearing a performance of The St. Matthew Passion as a child was the greatest event in his life. Two other influences in his works were his long involvement in religious music, and his strong interest in solo and concertante performance. While Martin was involved with Schoenberg starting in the early 1930s, he never adopted true 12-tone technique but used variants of serialism in much of his music.
The Passacaille clearly shows the influence of Bach. It was first performed in 1944 in Berne by the organist for whom it was composed. Later Martin created a string orchestra version, as well as one for full orchestra. He later said he preferred the orchestral versions as they offered a richer variety of sound. The Polyptyque came about when Yehudi Menuin and Edmond de Stoutz asked the composer for a violin concerto accompanied by string orchestra. Instead of following the violin concerto model of Bach, he patterned the work after a set of six religious panels showing episodes of the Passion. His intent was to transpose into music the emotions the scenes aroused in him. The separation of the two string orchestras adds an interesting spatial interest to the music in the 5.1 form. (I will later try its 2+2+2 playback for our second feature article on this alternate assigning of the six channels.)
As a sometime harpsichordist, the Martin harpsichord concerto was my primary interest on this SACD. The composer’s Petite Symphonie concertante (which includes harpsichord) is my favorite work of his. (Like Berg, and some of Stravinsky’s efforts, Martin’s approach to serialism strikes me as exciting and enjoyable, but not that of any of the other serialists.) Martin had long desired to write something for the instrument which would allow it “to speak the language of contemporary music.” It has only two movements – the first and shorter displaying a wavelike rhythm inspired by the composer staying near the North Sea during its composition. In the second movement the harpsichord is more integrated into the orchestral sound. It starts as an Adagio but picks up tempo little by little. Prior to a concluding fast waltz both it and the orchestra slow down to a more measured pace. The orchestra is reduced in size to avoid drowning out the subtle voice of the harpsichord. Martin said “I am convinced that the harpsichord will increasingly be able to assert itself not only in early music, but also…among the various voices at the disposal of the composer of today.”
– John Sunier