Thursday, March 21, 2024

Martinů, Copland, and Suk at Second Sunday

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, Jocelyn Aubrun.


Ambroise and Jocelyn Aubrun, and Steven Vanhauwaert, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Advancing years make you realize ever more clearly that some composers' oeuvres are so large that it's increasingly unlikely you'll live long enough to get to know them really well. For a few, their works are so voluminous in number that however early you started, this was never likely to be the case (the complete Telemann, anyone?), while for others like (fill in your own blank here)… well, do you really care?

Bohuslav Martinů.
But in some cases it’s a real regret, and high on my list is the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). His “H” numbers (from the catalog by musicologist Harry Heilbrech) reach to 384, with a substantial roster in just about every major genre: 16 operas; 15 ballets; over 50 orchestral works including six symphonies and nearly 30 concertos for differing forces; much solo keyboard music; many songs and a few choral/orchestral pieces; and around 80 chamber works ranging from duos to nonets. The projected complete edition of his music is estimated eventually to fill 106 volumes—enough said.

Of course, sheer numbers mean nothing, but encounters with Martinů’s music have never yet failed to be rewarding, from the revelatory series of early and opulent orchestral works on the Toccata Classics label, through the relatively familiar (or less unfamiliar) symphonies, to the gaunt purity of his late oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh H. 351, which I was lucky enough to hear twice in London many years ago.

In recent years there have been few local live performances of his chamber music (one exception was the brilliant Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola H. 313 in the inaugural season of Cécilia Tsan’s “Concerts in the [Mount Wilson] Dome,” reviewed here), so the inclusion of two of his three trios for flute, violin and keyboard in the March “Second Sundays at Two” recital from Classical Crossroads, Inc., could not have been more welcome.

Steven Vanhauwaert (piano), Artistic Director of the series, was joined by Jocelyn Aubrun (flute) and Ambroise Aubrun (violin) in the Sonata H. 254 (1937, Paris) and Madrigal-Sonata H. 291 (1942, New York). In the four-movement Sonata’s opening Allegro poco moderato, the flute and violin alternate (here with perfect aplomb) both the perky staccato opening motif and the cantabile second subject, while the piano comes into its own with an eloquent stepwise melody, also marked cantabile, in the development.

The whole movement is a perfectly balanced sonata-form design, an object-lesson in concision and immediacy lasting just four minutes. Similarly brief is the Adagio, though its serene melodic continuity conveys an impression of spaciousness that belies its actual duration. The skill of these players, combined with Martinů’s masterly allotting of his material between the instruments, ensured that despite all three playing almost continuously, nowhere did the textures ever become clotted.

The succeeding Allegretto is a scherzo-and-trio, complete with formal repeats in the trio, wherein a broad-spanning tune is delivered by the flute in the first half, by the violin in the second, and by the piano in a coda before the scherzo da capo. The Moderato (poco Allegro) finale is again a concise, modified sonata design, opening with 20 measures of piano alone, and in its development featuring a cadenza-like, Poco Andante flute solo over tremolando violin, exquisitely handled by the brothers Aubrun.

Martinů in New York, 1943.
Though it has the same concision, ebullience, and aerated textures, the Madrigal-Sonata H. 291 is far more formally free than the earlier Sonata H. 254. The first of its two movements retains some shadow of sonata design, but is more in the character of a continuous toccata.

The longer second movement opens Moderato with a wistful, rather vocal-sounding melody on the flute—the clearest instance, perhaps, of the “madrigal” influence—but the music trills off into unpredictable and restless by-ways before pulling itself together into an impulsive Allegro.

This drives to a climax but then relaxes into a return of the opening Moderato, which in turn accelerates into an even more frenetic version of the Allegro. Shot through with irregular rhythms and sudden changes of direction texturally, harmonically, and dynamically, it must be a real challenge for performers to hold together, but Vanhauwaert and the Aubruns made it all sound easy.

Aaron Copland, 1971.
Martinů’s two sonatas were separated by the last completed work of Aaron Copland (1900-1990), his Duo for Flute and Piano (1971). Its first movement, marked Flowing, oscillates between a pared-down conspectus of his earlier “Western” style—from wide open spaces to quasi-hoedown—but in II Poetic, somewhat mournful, an altogether darker and more agitated mood appears, which is not altogether dispelled by the determinedly Lively, with bounce third movement.

Throughout, the textures are as spare as those of Martinů teem with interlocking intricacy, so that often Copland has only single lines passing from one instrument to the other, here done with featherlight clarity by Aubrun and Vanhauwaert.

It’s probable that Martinů’s output in toto bulks larger than those combined of Copland and Martinů’s compatriot and elder by half a generation, Josef Suk (1874-1935). Though the latter wrote some very large-scale and still under-appreciated works, today we were treated, just as an encore, to his charming miniature Bagatela „S kyticí v ruce“ (With Nosegay in Hand), played with all the affection it deserved by the Aubruns and Vanhauwaert.

Josef Suk.
These three players were going straight on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where Ambroise Aubrun is Associate Professor of Violin, to make a commercial recording of Martinů chamber works including the two sonatas—which was a reminder that another “Second Sunday” recital of some 18 months ago also preceded a commercial recording. 

In that case it was the duo of Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano) playing violin sonatas by Żeleński and Noskowski (reviewed here), whose disc of them has now appeared on the Naxos label. Meanwhile the current splendid "Second Sunday" recital can be enjoyed on Vimeo here


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, March 10, 2024, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Martinů (1): Music and the Holocaust, (2) Wikimedia Commons; Copland: Library of Congress; Suk:, St Petersburg.

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