MARTIN: Piano Works. Eight Preludes. Fantasy on Flamenco Rhythms. Guitare. Claire de Lune. Etude Rythmique. Esquisse.

MARTIN: Piano Works. Christiane Mathe, piano. KOCH-SCHWANN 3-1221-2 [DDD]; 47:40. Produced by Helene Steffan.

Eight Preludes. Fantasy on Flamenco Rhythms. Guitare. Claire de Lune. Etude Rythmique. Esquisse.

The more familiar one grows with the music of Frank Martin the more deeply rewarding it becomes — an impression with which most of my Fanfare colleagues appear to concur. Although his pieces for piano solo may seem peripheral to the body of his output, they share the qualities of meticulous elegance and understated eloquence displayed by his works of larger scale. This new recording omits Danse Grave from what would otherwise be a complete survey of this portion of his work.

Martin’s musical personality resembles Ravel’s in its crystalline lucidity; also, like Ravel, he achieved considerable artistic depth without a sense of weightiness. Yet Martin’s is a truly distinctive voice, with an airy coolness and mercurial lightness partly created by irregular metric schemes smoothly and discreetly blended into fluent patterns and textures and by a freely chromatic harmonic approach that avoids a strong grounding in tonality while favoring pure consonances.

The Eiqht Preludes that Martin wrote in 1948 for Dinu Lipatti (who died before he could perform them) display all the virtues described above, and have been recorded frequently during the past decade. However, their interpretive requirements seem to elude most pianists, as few if any of these renditions have displayed the necessary rhythmic incisiveness and translucence of touch and articulation. Christiane Matthe, a young German pianist whose involvements extend to jazz and modern dance as well as to contemporary music, does better than many in these pieces, but there is still considerable room for improvement. Martin’s largest-scale solo piano piece is the Fantasy on Flamenco Rhythms composed one year before his death in 1974. It was intended as a collaboration between his daughter, a flamenco dancer, and pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, a long-time friend. A deeply compelling work, it is stark, austere, and darkly reflective, and alternately declamatory, explosive, and propulsive in its unfolding. The treatment of flamenco elements is quite abstract and devoid of cliché.

The other pieces are much smaller, but far from negligible in quality and merit. Even the 1 1/2-minute Clair de Lune is a gem of beauty and mystery, exemplifying Martin’s unique sort of floating tonality.   Guitare consists of four short pieces originally written for guitar. Dedicated to Andrès Segovia, they seem quite idiomatically tailored to their intended instrument and are less effective, I think, on the piano, although the transcription was done by the composer.Esquisse was written as a contest piece and is a concentrated 3-minute work. Etude Rythmique is a homage to Jacques Dalcroze and is an apt realization of his eurhythmic ideals.

An all-Martin piano disc, featuring pianist Daniel Spiegelberg, was reviewed in Fanfare 15:3 by John Wiser, whose verdict I would summarize as a “C+”.  I have not heard that disc, but would summarize my reaction to this new release as a “B”– adequate in presenting the general import of the music, but overlooking much of its subtlety and not always rhythmically accurate. Frank Martin’s piano music still awaits recorded performances that can be wholeheartedly recommended.