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Martinů Makes Happy

The latest Embassy Series concert – two performances of cellist Teodor Brcko and accompanist Monika Mockovĕáková at the Slovak embassy – offered one of the more tantalizing programs I’ve seen in a while. It offered two composers I was entirely unfamiliar with (François Francœur and Vladimír Godár), and the composers I was familiar with (Schumann, Janáček, and Martinů) were represented with works unfamiliar to me.

François Francœur, who lived from 1698 to 1787, succeeded Lully at Versailles (together with François Rebel) and was lucky enough to duck the swift justice of the French Revolution that befell most court members. As much as we may care that Mr. Francœur averted historic tragedy by ten-some inches, the survival of his cello sonata in E major is rather more important to me, now that I’ve heard it. Between the composer and his interpreters, the music came out to be late Baroque with a very Romantic soul. A first movement was driven by the devil and betrayed its late 18th-century roots with playful runs typical of the galant style. Far from making the work vapid, these excursions managed to endear it to the ears. The courtly two-part movement has a delicacy about it that could be called ‘harmless’ – but mostly it just smiled into an audience that instinctively smiled back. It is the kind of music that probably won’t make it on our or our library’s shelf but also one that we’d be the poorer for not having heard.

A reviewer of the Thursday performance (although I could find neither review nor reviewer) was allegedly full of praise, proclaiming that ‘five stars were not enough’ to rate the performance. This Friday, five stars were certainly enough, but there were moments in the performance where they were just as certainly deserved. For the program alone the artists earned plaudits. Their engaged performances only contributed to that positive impression. Mr. Brcko’s sometimes velvety, always burnished sound was more important than technical perfection or flawless intonation would have been. His and his musical partner’s evident strengths also served them fairly well in Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston, op. 102. What would have served Schumann well in these five meandering beauties forming a sprawling suite is a ruthless editor who would have cut excess development (and “too many notes”) right out of it.

Janáček’s dreamy Fairy Tale for cello and piano – with the instruments roughly of equal importance – was composed in 1910, a few years still before he had his musically golden autumn and heyday that brought us Kát’a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case, and the second string quartet “Intimate Letters.” This smaller work has gorgeous moments, too, but also oddly unpropelled ones where things get stuck. For the most part, though, beauty prevails.

Vladimír Godár is a contemporary Slovak composer who is not yet half a century old. His Sonata in Memoriam of Viktor Schklovskij is an instrumental, monochrome requiem much in the tonal and subdued neo-spiritual style that we know from its more prominent exponents Silvestri, Kancheli, Pärt, Penderecki, et al. It could easily have turned into a bland derivative of the above, but with great textural variety and old tricks of sound production well employed, it ended up being a highlight of the evening to these ears. Music by eminent film composer Zbigniew Preisner was evoked on more than one occasion; maybe not a coincidence given Godár’s own activities in the field of film music. If some in the audience did not take immediately to this work or thought it too long by half, it was not due to lack of dedication on the part of the performers, who dug deep in order to get this “music with a pulse” to as many receptive ears as possible. For the cause of classical music as a living art over classical music as a museal artifact, it was a minor – but important – victory quite regardless of whether or not the work itself shall claim its place in musicians' repertories of the next decades or centuries. For all the virtues that the sonata had, it did make the point that it is harder to end a work than it is to begin one.

available at Amazon
B.Martinů , Works for Cello & Piano
P. & H.Watkins

Bohuslav Martinů is one of my 'stubborn favorites' – a composer I feel very inclined to love, but also one who always wants to be conquered and sometimes disappoints. His beauty can be elusive but if you catch a hold of it, it can be enchanting and more. Detractors quip (not entirely without merit) that Martinů is a composer perennially in search of a style. The kinder variant of this judgment is to declare him “utterly unique.” His biography is very cosmopolitan – Prague, Paris, New York, and Basel were his main stations in a life chased by war and marked by exile. Perhaps that is why you cannot place him stylistically. He can suggest Milhaud or Frank Martin one minute, Albert Roussel (a teacher of his) the next, and then a home-brewed version of Janáček or Smetana. For anyone new to Martinů’s music, his nostalgic Variations on a Slovak Theme is a great first exposure to this chimera of a composer. It is lush and harmonic like a full-bodied white wine but mercifully with zero residual sugar that would have turned good musical intentions into syrupy schlock. Mr. Brcko and Mme. Mockovĕáková delivered it with their, by far, most convincing performance of the evening.

A well-played encore (Chopin) did not detract from the positive experience of the Martinů – and more Martinů in form of a second encore was welcome, too. The latter work dashed along with the casual wit of a Monty Python ditty… “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Here's a little number I tossed off recently in the Caribbean.”

Upcoming performances of the Embassy Series – including the Enescu program at the Romanian embassy on Tuesday – can be found here.