Martinů Violin Sonata no. 1, H. 182

performed by the late Fredell Lack and Timothy Hester, or below by Markéta Janoušková, violin; Václav Mácha, piano

(Before we begin this article, I’d like to take a moment to discuss Fredell Lack. This article had been scheduled for months, and just last week, on August 20, 2017, the noted violinist passed away at the age of 95. A bit more about her.

Fredell Lack was born on February 19, 1922 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to a family of Latvian immigrants. She began violin studies at the age of 6, and began studying with Josephine Boudreaux, then concertmaster of the Houston Symphony, after her family moved to Houston. She gave her first performance as soloist with orchestra at the age of 11, performing Wieniawski’s second concerto with the Tulsa Philharmonic. At 12, she began studying in New York with Louis Persinger, teacher of people like Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and Ruggiero Ricci. She graduated from Juilliard at 21.

The ‘Career’ section of her Wikipedia article gives a long list of orchestras with whom she’s performed, as well as other associations with people like Ivan Galamian, Enescu, and Boulanger. Details of her performance, recording, and teaching career are impressive to say the least, but until coming around to Martinů’s sonatas, I’d never heard of her. Certainly a loss for the music world, but what a fulfilling career she had.)

Martinů’s first violin sonata was completed in 1929 and published in 1930, being first performed on November 5 of that year. At the time of composition, he was already nearly 40 years old. There are a few other early sonatas for violin in his list of compositions, but this one was difficult enough to find anyway, and it’s the earliest included on Fredell Lack’s album, so here we are.

Of this piece, someone writes as an introduction to an album on Presto Classical:

The Sonata No.1 is one of Martinu’s last “jazz” works. As in the case of Stravinsky, Satie and Milhaud, Martinu’s affection for American jazz is most evident in his chamber music.

And that’s certainly a standout feature of the work, as we will notice after the opening of the first movement, and what an opening it is, for such a short work. From the get go, the Dvorak-ish, French influence of the first quartet is gone. The sonata begins in medias res, with a long cadenza-like passage for the violin before the piano utters a syllable. This showy, serious passage lasts for about 20% of the playing time of the first movement, and things noticeably lighten up when the piano enters. Enter the jazz.

The piano brings with it a very bluesy color palette, as well syncopation, making for a surprisingly jazzy affair coming after that entry. The result of the first movement is a conflict of roles, a tug of war almost, as the piano tries to cast a bluesy tinge over the movement. The violin does reprise some of its opening content, but the piano seems determined to lighten things up, and I think it’s these two main ideas that characterize the entire work, in some way or other. We’ll hear more from Martinů later this week, but we might now already be on the edge of hearing the turmoil and trouble that would inevitably appear in many artistic forms around the middle of the century.

The second movement feels at first like a continuation of the previous argument, but lighter. There’s pizzicato and texture, but the piano comes to the foreground, again with a smoky blue tinge, but violin seems to abide this time. There’s more to it than just this, certainly, but if you thought about what a Gershwin violin sonata might sound like…. it might be something like this. The biggest difference is it feels like Martinů’s writing for the violin is very idiomatic, suited for the instrument. I think of Gershwin as a piano man. There are soft, almost languid passages, but also more texturally exciting, shimmery ones.

The finale is crunchy and syncopated, perhaps the best display of real cooperation between the two instruments so far. It’s also the shortest movement, and feels again like a continuation of the previous one, yet with even more texture, roughly plucked strings, and strong rhythms. The piano even has a little cadenza of its own. And the narrative that you might hear in this work, of the ‘serious’ cadenza-like thread of the opening, and the piano’s jazzy influence, they’ve almost reconciled in a way by the end.

Overall I get more the feeling of this little sonata being one of splashes of color and texture than anything to be blown away by. But as “one of his last ‘jazz’ works,” could it be that we’re on the precipice of a new sound from the composer? I don’t know. I’m familiar with very little of his music, and this certainly seems like a time, as the above reviewer mentioned, where jazz was hot. Gershwin was doing his thing, but it wasn’t just the Americans. Ravel, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and plenty more got in on the action, and apparently Martinů had a little bit of that interest as well, but as we shall see, it seems it was eventually used up or replaced by weightier matters.

I don’t want to sound critical about this piece. It’s actually quite nice. If I heard it on a program at a chamber concert, I’m sure I’d be very pleased. That being said, it just doesn’t strike me as any kind of landmark, memorable work in the form, no matter how interesting the juxtaposition of its two overall ‘color schemes.’

Remember: this isn’t an early work, even if it’s a first sonata. It’s already got a number as high as 182 in his catalogue, so the maturity in things like balancing disparate elements of this sonata or the effective writing for the two instruments should almost be a given. it would take him even longer to write a symphony, though. That first symphony would have catalogue number H. 289, to give you an idea of the kind of massive output the composer had. In any case, we won’t be seeing a symphony from him for some time, unfortunately, but stay tuned for one more work from his pen later this week. Thank you for reading.


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