“Small Storms: A Collection of Short Pieces by BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ = Variations on a Theme of Rossini, H. 290; Ariette for Cello and Piano, H. 188B; Seven Arabesques for Cello and Piano H. 201; Suite Miniature for Cello and Piano, H. 192; Nocturnes for Cello and Piano, H. 189; Variations on a Slovakian Theme, H. 378 ‒ Meredith Blecha-Wells, cello / Sun Min Kim, piano ‒ Navona Records NV6092 [distrib. by Naxos]; 59:00 (4/17/17) ****
Martinů’s unique blend of neoclassicism and folk music bound up in a series of appealing little packages.
Martinů is one of those composers—like Milhaud and Hovhaness in the twentieth century and Saint-Saëns in the nineteenth—who was almost too prolific to be taken seriously. And, indeed, critics have taken Martinů to task for writing too fast and furiously, not subjecting his art to the kind of scrutiny and reflection that results in lasting significance. Like Saint-Saëns, Martinů may not be broadly represented in the concert hall today, but also like the French composer, his vast oeuvre is increasingly finding its way to disk and to music lovers’ shelves.
I confess it took me quite a while to come around to the manifest charms of Martinů. I responded first to his orchestral works, his highly individual little symphonies followed by his violin and cello concerti and of course his orchestral masterpiece, the Double Concerto for Strings, Piano, and Timpani. Martinů’s orchestral music is still the most widely recorded part of his output, though increasingly his vocal and chamber music are being committed to disc. In fact, the most important works in the current recital—the two sets of variations—are represented by over a dozen recordings each. Since I’m still catching up with Martinů the chamber music composer, I haven’t heard any of these alternatives and so come fresh to the music. Familiar as I am with Martinů’s idiom now, it seems to me the Blecha-Wells–Kim duo commands the blend of neoclassical drive and folk-musical lyricism that is uniquely Bohuslav Martinů.
Martinů wrote his Variations on a Theme of Rossini in 1942 for no less a figure than Gregor Piatigorsky. The composer took his theme from Non più mesa, Angelina’s final aria from Act 2 of La Cenerentola. And while Martinů announces the melody twice, at the opening and closing of his variations, the tune is never quite as Rossini wrote it. Both times it appears in rather fractured form. Martinů’s cubistic treatment of the theme deconstructs it even further in his set of four variations, the brief Variation IV, marked Allegro, subjecting it to rhythmic disruptions—quirky syncopations and four-against-three patterns—that render it just about unrecognizable. The Rossini Variations is a wild ride for performers and listeners alike.
By comparison, the other music on this disc seems relatively well-mannered and companionable. The Seven Arabesques is a fine example of the melding of neoclassical and middle-European folk elements that are the hallmark of Martinů’s music from the twenties to the early fifties. It begins with a bouncy, folkdance-like Poco Allegro followed by a bluesy Moderato. Jazz and blues are important influences during this period in Martinů’s career, as witness the jaunty fourth Arabesque. Typically, the final piece, marked Allegretto Moderato, sounds like a jazzed-up folk dance.
The Suite Miniature is even lighter fare—not Martinů at his most remarkable, except that the final Moderato seems to show the rare influence of Prokofiev. More memorable are the Nocturnes, the Lento second piece, of over six minutes’ duration, being the longest single movement on this disc and the most profound: a loving, languorous piece. The jumpy final Nocturne, marked Allegretto Moderato, might conjure up a night on the town, except it’s altogether too folksy for that.
The final work on the program, Variations on a Slovakian Theme, comes from 1959, the last year of Martinů’s life. This culminates a period during which the neoclassical elements in the composer’s music had receded in favor of a less formal approach to structure and an even greater reliance on folk influences. The piece begins with thirty-second note tremolos in the piano that seem cannily to mimic the cimbalom. Much of the music has the syncopated drive of middle-European folk music, especially the final Allegro, surprisingly reminiscent of Bartók from the teens or twenties. The emotional heart of the work, though, is the lovely Variation III, marked Moderato.
Martinů’s music for cello and piano offers a good many contrast, from the virtuoso sets of variations to the sunny, comparatively lightweight Arabesques and Suite, with the Nocturnes occupying a sort of middle ground. This makes for a nicely balanced program, performed with zest, as well as understanding, by the team of Meredith Blecha-Wells and Sun Min Kim. Blecha-Wells studied with the late, great János Starker, who must have helped cultivate the sympathy for the middle-European musical idiom that’s so evident in her playing. A nicely resonant recording set down at Oklahoma City’s Armstrong Auditorium (which has received online raves for its acoustics) is a decided plus.