Bohuslav Martinu: Piano Quintet 2 and String Quartet 1

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Bohuslav Martinů - Piano Quintet No. 2 (1944)
English: Bohuslav Martinů six or seven years o...
English: Bohuslav Martinů six or seven years old playing violin. Bohemia, Policka, around 1896 Česky: Bohuslav Martinů jako šestiletý či sedmiletý houslista. Čechy, Polička, kolem roku 1896 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Performed by the Martinu Quartet with Karel Kosárek.

I. Poco Allegro - 00:00
II. Adagio - 6:27
III. Scherzo - Poco Allegretto - 13:54
IV. Largo - Allegro Non Troppo - 20:00

Chamber music, in all of its many combinations from ensembles of up to nine instruments to duos, occupies a significant place in the vast output of Bohuslav Martinů. Although it is the sequence of string quartets, spanning a period of some three decades (1917-47) that constitutes his most substantial contribution to the genre, there are few chamber formations whose possibilities he did not try out, not least the piano quintet, a medium that had held considerable appeal for composers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and whose late-Romantic expressive overtones Martinů found not at all incompatible with the distinctly post-Romantic aesthetic favoured during his maturity.

Composed in 1944, the Second Piano Quintet is a product of the war-years that Martinů spent in and around New York. Although he adapted to his American environment more readily than others of his contemporaries, an element of restiveness, even anxiety, is seldom far from the surface of his music during that time. Such is true of the quintet, cast on a larger scale than its predecessor and also more innovative in its approach to formal issues. Although it was written immediately before the Third Symphony, the work's mood of cautious optimism is rather closer to that of the Fourth Symphony that succeeded it, as is the often intricate and diaphanous instrumentation.

The first movement gradually comes into focus through an undulating motion on piano and strings, with the robust main theme only then taking shape. As with other of Martinů's instrumental works of this period, there are numerous secondary but related ideas that throw the main theme into greater relief, not least a mysterious one at the centre that brings back the opening music in varied form. The second movement is one of the composer's most thoughtful Adagios, building from a few simple phrases into a noble dialogue and complemented by an unworldly, ostinato-driven idea that might almost be a prototype for certain Minimalist music of several decades hence. This gives way to a version of the first theme heard radiantly on violin, then to a searching passage on strings, before the opening is recalled on the way to a gentle close. The third movement is a fully-fledged scherzo whose main theme nonchalantly trades exchanges between the strings over a lively piano accompaniment, culminating in a hectic chase to the close. By contrast, the trio is spare and almost self-effacing in manner, while being no less rhythmically alert. The scherzo then resumes much as before, but this time the 'chase' brings about a more decisive end. The fourth movement opens with a slow introduction of a sustained intensity and tonal freedom not found elsewhere. The Allegro that follows is a perfect foil in its nimble energy and relaxed manner, though the introduction is to make its presence felt in an intensified mid-way return. After this, a much-curtailed version of the Allegro returns to take the whole work through to its breathless conclusion.

Bohuslav Martinů - String Quartet No. 1 "The French" (1918)
Performed by the Martinu Quartet.

I. Moderato - Allegro Ma non Troppo - 00:00
II. Andante Moderato - 9:02
III. Allegro Non Troppo - 16:03
IV. Allegro Con Brio - 26:21