Notes and Editorial Reviews
Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano.
String Quartet No. 5.
Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano.
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano
(vn); Lois Martin (va);
(vc); Alan R. Kay (cl);
ALBANY TROY 1167 (65:54)
Donald Martino (1931–2005) was one of the few true masters of the “uptown” serial school, spending the majority of his career associated with the Boston scene, in particular the New England Conservatory and Harvard. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his sextet
. His music—as former
critic and Boston Symphony Orchestra annotator Robert Kirzinger observes in this disc’s notes—is distinguished by a great freedom of expression, despite its extreme technical rigor. Kirzinger suggests that it has an improvisatory feel, and I think that’s correct. At times the music is so intense it seems to be breaking its boundaries, spilling off the page.
Martino was originally a clarinetist, and like his mentor Milton Babbitt wrote popular songs at midcentury (there’s one, “Late in the Day,” that I feel should be a standard, it’s so hauntingly memorable). All this went into imbuing his music with a drama and lyricism that not many other composers associated with late High Modernism could attain.
These four pieces were all written in 2004, in an extraordinary sustained burst. Martino had experienced health problems, but they seemed to have passed and there’s probably an element of exultation here (though cruelly he was to be cut down soon thereafter). All of them bespeak a certain neoclassicism. By that I don’t mean “Stravinskyisms,” but rather a taste for clear delineated phrases, richly figured textures, and formal schemes that suggest architectures from repertoire works. Martino also had an ability to write driving fast music that never relied on easy ostinatos. His rhythmic sense and sustained outpouring of energy can be staggering in some of these pieces, such as the Prestissimo finale of the piano trio and the Scherzo of the string quartet.
So with all these virtues, there’s no real criticism, correct? Not exactly, though it brings up an interesting episode from my own life as it relates to the composer.
Years ago, when I was just starting my work at
, I reviewed a work of Martino’s, and one to which I
I gave a positive review. Well, wrong—I received a letter from the composer taking me to task for something I thought was a reasonable criticism. He was obviously very miffed. It threw me for a loop at the time, because I was much younger and vulnerable, and I actually initiated something of a dialogue, which now as I look back, is revealing.
I remember at one point I made a comment that every composer “chooses his or her language.” This probably incensed Martino more than anything, as he wrote back that he had absolutely no choice, history demanded he took the path he did. This was obviously a confrontation between two composers on either side of the divide of the mid 20th century, one resolutely modern, the other more postmodern. Looking back, I understand and respect Martino’s feelings for how he had to act, but I still believe that no composer can claim to be a puppet of historical forces; everyone still chooses which path to take, even if they believe the one they select is the “correct” one.
OK, where does this digression lead in relation to the disc under review? Well, it has to do with layers. And by that I mean that (like everything) there are three—the deep “architectural/structural” layer, the middle “thematic” layer, and the surface “ornament” layer. Of course these are still artificial distinctions, but I think they mean something. The language of highly developed serialism that Martino adopted is great for both the deep and topmost layer. It creates big structures (especially in that more neoclassical context) that meet their formal demands, and it creates surface gestures that are frankly spectacular. Where it doesn’t fully satisfy is in that middle layer, that of themes and progressions that over a certain median span are truly memorable. This isn’t Martino’s fault, or more precisely only so in that he chose a language that I think precludes that (or at last makes it very difficult). And so, even beyond the grave, our altercation continues.
The good news is that in one of these pieces, the Violin Sonata, I feel that Martino meets and succeeds in his confrontation with this challenge. Take the slow movement, perhaps the ultimate challenge for that “middle-level” coherence. Here I found myself following every phrase, which felt as though its content related to its predecessor and successor. So perhaps the composer has the last laugh on me; in fact he
write a piece that stilled my criticism.
Of course, I suspect I’ve said things here that have him turning in his grave or throwing thunderbolts from above. So be it. No matter what my reservations, this is strong, personal, intensely expressive music.
Can I also say the performances are through the roof? These are a set of performers who distill their decades of experience into brilliant, searing interpretations.
FANFARE: Robert Carl