MARTIN: Erasmi Monumentum. Concerto for Seven Winds Percussion, and Strings. Etudes for String Orchestra. Matthias Bamert conducting the London Philharmonic; Leslie Pearson, organ. CHANDOS CHAN-9283 [DDD]; 66:49. Produced by Brian Couzens.
The chief attraction of this disc is what I believe to be the first recording of Erasmi Monumentum, a 24-minute work in three movements for organ and orchestra, composed in 1969 to honor the Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. It is easy to suppose that Martin saw something of himself in the Dutch humanist, often described as a voice of reason and moderation in a period torn by fanaticism, as these qualities are clearly apparent in his musical personality. There are various references to Erasmus in the movement titles and in verbal quotations that appear within the score, but their relationship to the music is tenuous, as philosophical references always are. Nevertheless, the piece has some wonderful moments typical of the lofty austerity of Martin’s late work The first movement, “Independent Man,” is somber, grave, and passacaglia-like, culminating in a melody that is quintessentially Martinian in its icily intense chromaticism. The second movement, “The Praise of Folly,” is a vulgar, almost Ibert-like burlesque — quite a departure from the composer’s dignified norm. It is fairly busy and involved in its working out, which maintains interest and prevents it from seeming silly. The third movement, “A Plea for Peace,” is searingly dissonant at first, but proceeds toward a profound, understated serenity. The organ is generally subdued — a deep supporting presence, for the most part — and blends nicely with the orchestra on this recording. Listeners fond of Martin’s music will surely want to know about this work.
Both the Concerto for Seven Winds, Percussion, and Strings, and the Etudes for String Orchestra represent something of a balance between diverting neoclassical entertainment and a deeper, more penetrating level of expression. The same might be said for Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, a work that repeatedly comes to mind while listening to both these pieces by Martin. The first movement of the 1949 Concerto is a perky tour-de-force for the soloists, although its musical content is less interesting to me. But the second movement has a stately, somber beauty uniquely characteristic of Martin, while the third movement might be described as transcendently nifty This work has been given a good deal of attention lately. A recording featuring Richard Kapp’s Philharmonia Virtuosi (Ess.a.y CD1014) was reviewed in Fanfare 15:1. Paul Snook described it as “meticulous and magisterial,” recommending it “totally and unreservedly to one and all”; the release was also “urgently recommended” by John Wiser in the same issue. Owning that disc myself, I would agree with my colleagues: indeed, I think this performance even surpasses the fabled Martinon/Chicago SO recording. The new London Philharmonic performance does not display a comparable level of crispness and transparency.
The Etudes, composed during the mid 1950s, are heard less often than the Concerto. Of its five movements, the first three seem a little superficial to me, but the last two are beauties John Wiser praised a DGG recording (435 383-2) of this work played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Thierry Fischer in Fanfare 16:4. (That disc also contains the Concerto for Seven Winds, et. al.)
Frank Martin’s music requires incisiveness and crisp precision to achieve its most effective representation. The performances on this new Chandos disc, while adequate, do not boast these qualities. Indeed, I have yet to be favorably impressed by any of Matthias Bamert’s work as a conductor. Martin was a great composer, and surveying his music is deeply rewarding. But I would direct most listeners to either the Ess.a.y or the DGG recordings noted above, reserving recommendation of this Chandos disc only to those far enough along in their exploration of Martin to require the rarely heard Erasmi Monumentum.