The other day, I
discovered something I should have realized years ago; that 8th December
was the birth date of the composers Sibelius and Martinu, both of whom would
appear on my list of personal favourites, should I ever be asked to compile
I discovered the
wonders of Sibelius when I was about thirteen. It was his second symphony
and I was playing the cello somewhere near the back desk of a youth
orchestra. The cellos were led by a tall and imperious girl who earned
herself the slightly derisive title of “High Priestess of the cello
section”. I often wonder what happened to her.
Playing a Sibelius
symphony in an orchestra is always a richer experience than being in the
audience because you become acutely aware of the sense of continuous organic
growth within the music. Anyway, the result was that for a good few years I
became hooked on Sibelius. In some ways I still am.
A year or so later I
discovered the music of Martinu when I happened to hear his third cello
sonata on the radio. Oh, and what excitement it caused! I raced down to
the music shop to order the recording and the printed music, for we lived
out in the sticks and things like records and sheet music had to be ordered
from afar. When the music finally arrived, to my dismay it was technically
beyond me. Even so, I developed a soft spot for the music of Martinu and
eventually acquired the largest collection of Martinu records in town.
Some writers have
accused Martinu of note-spinning and I have to admit that sometimes he does
go on a bit. Perhaps they were merely envious of someone who was so
prolific, for he wrote nearly four hundred works including six symphonies,
fifteen operas, fourteen ballet scores and a huge amount of large orchestral
and chamber music.
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959): String Quartet Nr.7 Concerto da camera.
Kubin Quartet (Duration: 00:28; Video 360p)
The Czech composer
Martinu wrote eight string quartets, more if you include his childhood
compositions. The seventh quartet is one of his most approachable and was
composed in New York in 1947. The subtitle Concerto da camera (a
kind of chamber concerto popular with Vivaldi and Telemann) gives the game
away that this is a neo-classical work. In case you’d forgotten, this was a
musical style popular among composers the 1920s and 30s which took
eighteenth century musical forms and techniques and placed them in a
twentieth century context. The Kubin Quartet gives an excellent performance
and as a bonus, you get a couple of encores by two other Czech composers.
You can probably guess one of them.
The quartet is cast in
three movements and the opening bars sound a bit like Stravinsky, but most
neo-classical music sounds a bit like Stravinsky. The slow movement (at
07:22) is a lovely lyrical piece that shows Martinu skill in creating
gorgeously rich harmonies and his gift of writing singing melodies. He did
after all, write fifteen operas. At first, the final movement (at 15:34)
sounds a bit Haydnesque and it’s all jolly, light-hearted stuff though
there’s some clever string writing and some attractive fragments of melody.
was the son of a shoemaker and spent most of his childhood living in a
church tower. Not many people know that.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): String Quartet Op. 56 (Voces intimae).
casalQuartet (Duration: 32:11; Video: 2160p 4K UHD)
Just in case you’re
wondering, the casalQuartet (sic) use this slightly irritating
interchange of upper and lower case letters presumably to distinguish
themselves from the Casals quartet which was formed in Spain at around the
same time twenty years ago.
As a student, Sibelius
composed several string quartets but then left the genre completely alone
until 1909 when he wrote this one during his stay in London.
Chronologically it sits between his third and fourth symphonies and has five
movements instead of the more usual four. The Latin subtitle means
“Intimate Voices” but you’ve probably worked that out already.
From the start, the
distinctive sound-world of Sibelius emerges, yet at the first performance in
1910 the Finnish critic dryly observed that while it was a brilliant work it
was “not a composition for the public at large, it is so eccentric and out
of the ordinary”. Perhaps in 1910 it might have seemed “eccentric” but that
was over a hundred years ago and musically we’ve moved on.
I think this quartet
could be enjoyed by anyone, but I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.
Anyway, because of the wonderful high definition you can enjoy this superb
performance on a big screen. Of course, if you select the high resolution
option, you’ll need a half-decent processor in your computer and super-fast
Enescu and one of his pupils in 1931,
a very young Yehudi Menuhin.
The other day some friends and I were
having our weekly meeting in Jomtien, where we chat over coffee and
generally put the world to rights. At one point I asked them who or what
came to mind when I mentioned the name Romania, the largest country in
Southeastern Europe. There was a moment’s silence as we all rummaged in our
memories for something tangible. Someone mentioned the notorious dictator
Nicolae Ceauescu, who you may recall was the last Communist leader of
Romania until he and his wife were unceremoniously finished off by firing
squad on Christmas Day 1989. Someone else mentioned the Romanian composer
George Enescu and the only names I could dredge up were those of the
conductors Constantin Silvestri and Sergiu Celibidache. It was not an
impressive display of Romanian awareness.
Then we remembered the rich tradition
of Romanian folk music and the Jewish Klezmer musical tradition of Eastern
Europe. Folk music is the oldest form of Romanian music and is still alive
and well in all parts of the country. The Romanian composer and virtuoso
violinist Grigora Dinicu was greatly influenced by Romanian folk music. He
is best-known for his often-played violin showpiece Hora Staccato.
Jascha Heifetz once commented that Dinicu was the greatest violinist he had
Anyway, our Romanian mental adventures
were inspired by the fact 1st December
is Romania’s National Day, which unless you are Romanian, you may have
forgotten. So it seems appropriate to celebrate with some Romanian music.
Now normally, at this point I’d offer you a glass of Romanian wine, because
the country is one of the world’s largest wine producers and its viticulture
dates back more than six thousand years. Unfortunately I haven’t got any,
so you’ll have to make do with the music.
Porumbescu (1853-1883): Ballad for Violin and
(vln) Chamber Orchestra of the Romanian Radio cond. Olivier Robe. (Duration:
11:32; Video: 720p HD)
But what music it is! Many Romanian
composers delved into their country’s rich folk culture as a means of
inspiration. Porumbescu was no exception though we don’t hear much of this
composer these days. During his short life of just under thirty years, he
wrote more than 250 works and was the top name among Romanian composers,
best known for his choral works and operettas.
The Ballad for Violin and Orchestra
was completed 1880 and became the composer’s signature work. It’s a
melancholy, nostalgic piece which has that characteristic yearning Balkan
sound. The work is based on the doina, a free-rhythm improvised folk
style that is deeply ingrained in Romanian tradition. It’s thought that the
doina originated somewhere in the Middle East. This is an excellent
arrangement of the work by Thierry Huillet and the Romanian violinist Clara
Cernat gives a superb performance.
(1881–1955): Romanian Rhapsody No. 1.
Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Mariss Jansons (Duration: 12:29; Video: 360p)
Enescu, the most well-known of all the
Romanian composers was a child prodigy and began composing seriously at an
early age. His earliest work of significant length was entitled Romanian
Land and charmingly inscribed “opus for piano and violin by George
Enescu, Romanian composer, aged five years and a quarter”. He studied
violin, piano and composition at the Vienna Music Conservatoire and
graduated before he was thirteen. In adult life, he wrote five symphonies
and several other orchestral works, but he was also a sought-after violin
teacher. Among his pupils were Christian Ferras, Arthur Grumiaux and Yehudi
The two Romanian Rhapsodies are
George Enescu’s best-known compositions and have long held a permanent place
in the repertory of every major orchestra. The first one is by far the best
known and like all his work, makes considerable use of Romanian folk music.
It opens with spontaneous-sounding woodwind solos and has the feeling of
shifting between major and minor tonalities, one of the characteristics of
Romanian folk music. The pace soon gets going with a jolly polka leading
into a haunting waltz, scored with remarkable skill.
Enescu modestly claimed that the
Rhapsody was “just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about
it” but the brilliant orchestration and infectious energy in the music
reveals that the whole work was carefully planned. There are echoes of
Dinicu’s Hora Staccato at 05.56 (which was written three years after
the Rhapsody was first performed) when a thrilling whirling dance
emerges. There’s some stunningly good woodwind playing too.
This video was recorded over twenty
years ago; a superb performance from one of the world’s top orchestras under
the brilliant Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons. If you need an introduction
to Romanian classical music, you can hardly do better than hear this
splendid ebullient work. Incidentally, the Rhapsody was completed on
14 August 1901. Its composer George Enescu was nineteen years old.