Jean Martinon, Vol. 11 – Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Beethoven, Sibelius – Yves St-Laurent

by | Jan 17, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Jean Martinon, Vol. 11 = RAVEL: Shéhérazade; SAINT-SAËNS: Symphony in F Major; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3; SIBELIUS: En Saga– Yves St-Laurent YSL T-1269 (2 CDS : 50:45; 53:49, complete listing below) [] **** :

This generous pair of discs restrores French conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) at the helm of two musical organizations, the French National Orchestra, where he felt appreciated, and the Chicago Symphony, where critic Claudia Cassidy (1899-1996) and her coterie made Martinon feel unwelcome. The Chicago selection by Sibelius (3 December 1965) expands the range of Martinon’s sterotypical repertory of French music from the ballet and of the 20th Centruy. 

Martinon opens (29 January 1975) with Maurice Ravel’s youthful (1898) Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie, after a text by Tristan Klingsor, who like Ravel, admired the symphonic poem by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel’s work evolves as a pastiche of oriental colors, first set off by the oboe, and then horns and trumpets in B Minor. Ravel’s version of a Persian melody, a la Borodin, appears in F# Major, and its touches of Russian hues incited the local critics of the time to blast Ravel’s “plagiarism.”  Even with its borrowings from the Russians and even from Debussy, the work has a degree of sensuous attractiveness that Martinon evokes with enough fragrance to draw a reserved affection from his audience.

Camille Saint-Saens’ “Urbs Roma” Symphony (1856; pub. 1974), submitted for a competition in Bordeaux, is meant as a tribute to the city of Rome, as well, in the last movement, as a celebration of various composers’ musical styles, made as a testament to the compositional skills of its 21-year-old creator. The first movement, Largo – Allegro, invests a sense of grandeur to the occasion, enriched by the composer’s instinctual gift for orchestral colors. Martinon elicits fine response from his active strings and woodwinds, the rich, balletic, melodic texture’s rising up lyrically, not so far from Schubert, given the fanfare outbursts.  This first movement and the succeeding, whirling Scherzo: Molto vivace enjoy a bucolic character redolent of the Roman countryside. A vivacious flute part adds color to the second movement, easily suggestive of a festive round dance.

The expansive, even prolix, third movement of Urbs Roma is marked Moderato assai serioso, and its funereal character has been likened, metaphorically, to the end of the Roman Empire, as it once signified glory. The melody, almost from Hollywood by today’s standards, is comprised of a series of drooping figures and a trill, intoned by strings, winds, and horns. Again, the melodic contour seems to have gleaned its elements from Schubert. The finale, Poco allegretto – Andante con moto, offers a series of variations in diverse meters and in the style of composers Saint-Saens admired. We might hear something of Gounod in the first two, Schumann in the third, Brahms in the fourth. Much of the texture resembles a serenade or extended ballet divertissement hefty at times but not unduly heavy. The fifth variation could celebrate either Massenet or Gounod without strained comparisons. A kind of gentle apotheosis leads us to the quiet coda, upon which the audience expresses pleasure.

Martinon and the French orchestra seem energized by the presence of piano solo and Beethoven specialist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991). The opening movement of the 1803 C Minor Concerto proceeds in a broad, leisurely tempo, Allegro con brio, with a high gloss in the strings and winds. Less percussive than suavely lyrical, Serkin’s contribution aims at Beethoven’s color elements, skillfully applied. The drama injected into the first movement never fails to mark Beethoven’s stylistic evolution at this period, into his second phase, away from imitation of Classical masters and rather to his own, sinewy expression. Serkin’s cadenza, however, does quite test the keyboard’s hammers in his patented approach, percussive and fluid, at once, rounded off by his titanic trill. The hushed entry of the timpani for the coda always raises chills and blood pressure.

The Largo enjoys its familiar E Major song without a cloud in the sky, uplifted once more by Serkin’s potent runs and steely trill. The enharmonic shift from G# to A-flat to transition to the Rondo finale maintains a sense of unity in textural variety, and we are off to the familiar races, the musical gymnastics assisted in fugal form before the last moment of surprise, when Serkin transforms the metrics into 6/8 for a closing romp. There is nothing half-hearted in the Paris audience applause.

Sibelius, his having completed his nationalist, choral, symphony, Kullervo, in 1892, motivated conductor Robert Kajanus to suggest he write an accompanying work, shorter and easier for an audience to assimilate. The one-movement, tone-poem En Saga Sibelius constructed follows a formal pattern invented by Liszt, subdividing into five sections. Less overtly national in spirit, the often gloomy, abstract, and athletic work represents a personal vision, what Sibelius called “an expression of a state of
mind, , .after a number of painful experiences.” Jean Martinon, leading this provocative work, joins a tight fellowship of interpreters that includes Eduard van Beinum, Eugene Ormandy, and even Wilhelm Furtwaengler in having effected a potent interpretation. 

After an amorphous, misty opening section, the Chicago low strings and winds advance the martial energies of this piece in dotted rhythm, almost a war cry, soon led by the famed Chicago brass and its principal trumpet, Adolf Herseth over pizzicato strings. Whether t he ensuing gallop invokes Finnish hero Lemminkainen remains speculative, but the motifs assume various degrees of sweeping nuance and chromatic polyphony. The clarity of the Chicago orchestral choirs proves the equal of what the ensemble had achieved under Fritz Reiner, so the noise from critics Cassidy and her ilk seems merely spiteful. When, after a quiet, chamber music interlude, the music swells and accelerates madly, we find in Martinon a propulsion belonging to Reiner and even Toscanini. The real puzzle lies in the last pages of En Saga, with a lonely clarinet’s intoning plaintively over the shards of broken rhythmic impulse. This is the way Sibelius’ vision ends, with its own, existential whimper.

—Gary Lemco

Jean Martinon, Vol. 11:

RAVEL: Shéhérazade: ouverture de féerie;
SAINT-SAENS: Symphony in F Major “Urbs Roma”;
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 ;
SIBELIUS : En Saga, Op. 9

with Rudolf Serkin, piano/
Orchestre National de France (Ravel, Saint-Saens, Beethoven)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Sibelius)

More information available at St-Laurent Studios:


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Album Cover for Jean Martinon Vol 11

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