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FRANK MARTIN (1890-1974): VIOLIN CONCERTO (1950-1951) AND ESQUISSE FOR ORCHESTRA (1920)
Mountain and Sea
“Free man, you will always cherish the sea!” Even Geneva-born Frank Martin (1890-1974), who walked along the Swiss Alps’ rugged paths when he was a young man and tried his hand at rock climbing, didn’t give the lie to the poet Baudelaire! The sea’s infinite horizons gradually became for Frank Martin a compelling need that he satisfied when he was 56. He then settled in Holland, the country of his third wife, Maria Boecke (1915-2017). While taking long walks on the beaches and reconnecting with the feeling of silent plenitude he had already experienced among the high peaks, Frank Martin became convinced that “the mountains are static, whereas the sea has movement, rhythm and unlimited expanse”.
A link between this attraction to the sea and Frank Martin’s interest in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest cannot be excluded. In this drama, the waves and the turbulence they cause when they unleash their power play a crucial role.
On several occasions, Frank Martin wrote how he had been “haunted” for many years by Shakespeare’s Tempest (see the comments on his own works in Commentaires de Frank Martin sur ses oeuvres, published by La Baconnière, Neuchâtel, 1984). He was fascinated by the variety of the play’s characters and the sea’s constant presence with its immutable rhythm. Frank Martin first implemented his fascination for Shakespeare’s play in Cinq chants d’Ariel. This piece for mixed choir composed in 1950 was followed by the opera Der Sturm, which was premiered at the Vienna Opera in 1955. The “Shakespeare’s Tempest” context also influenced quite naturally Frank Martin’s other compositions of this period, in particular the Violin Concerto.
This piece commissioned by the Pro Helvetia Foundation was composed in 1950-1951 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra created by Paul Sacher. Frank Martin began writing the work “imbued with the fairy-tale atmosphere” in which Ariel is wrapped. The air spirit is bound to Prospero, Duke of Milan and a magician who controls the natural elements through his knowledge. In this concerto, Frank Martin fully respected the role assigned to this type of composition: “I have indeed endeavoured to write, as far as possible, a true concerto in three distinct parts - Allegro-Andante-Presto - that is a symphonic piece, but led and driven by a solo instrument. It also aims to display the instrument’s qualities and those of the player (op. cit.). Ariel puts in an appearance or shows the tip of his wings several times, “mysteriously far away, at the end of the first movement or at the violin’s entrance in the second movement, or lively and fanciful, like the Finale’s beginning. Yet there is nothing concerted here: I had simply remained a little bewitched by the charms of Prospero’s island” (ibid.).
The charm works from the work’s very first bars, Allegro tranquillo. The diaphanous sonorities prepare the entrance for the soloist, who deploys an intensely lyrical song, followed by a more passionate episode. The development is imbued with this dialectic between passion and spirituality. The dialogue culminates in a dazzling orchestral commentary, like the movement of waves. The flow of sound calms down, and the soloist can then let himself go, alone and magnificently expressive, before launching into a brilliant cadenza. Soloist and orchestra meet up in the coda, a moment full of spirituality and mystery as was the beginning of the work: Ariel, the spirit, is never far away. Calm reigns at the beginning and the end of the second part, Andante molto moderato. A gentle wave-like movement sets in, a delicate oscillation on which orchestra and soloist share an eminently lyrical air.
The orchestra then seems to want to impose its dramatic, almost terrifying statement. However, in the final bars, the solo violin leads to contemplation, floating on a murmur of low strings. The final presto is a masterpiece of instrumentation, an assemblage of colours, in the manner of the marine paintings dating from the Dutch Golden Age. Both the soloist and the orchestra display roaring energy. The brass and the timpani accentuate certain features. It is a game between air and water, between spirit and matter, that concludes in a dazzling light.
Frank Martin’s Violin Concerto was premiered in Basel on 24 January 1952 by violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger and the Basle Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Sacher. This great patron of the arts doubled the fee promised by the Pro Helvetia Foundation: an offer not to be refused!
In Frank Martin’s youth, Geneva’s musical life was very much oriented towards Germanic music, the works of the great German masters being those that were mainly played. Although Frank Martin, naturally gifted for music, did not follow the official teaching, he studied privately from 1917 onwards with Joseph Lauber (1864-1952), a musician trained at the Zurich Conservatory. Lauber was not indifferent to the novelties brought by French composers at the beginning of the 20th century. He introduced his pupil to the works of César Franck (a Belgian, admittedly!).
For Frank Martin, who had already turned 25 and composed several pieces, this was a revelation. So was the discovery of the music of Debussy, Ravel, Duparc, Fauré, not forgetting Stravinsky, whom Ernest Ansermet – founder of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 – regularly included in his programmes. Frank Martin was bewildered by these harmonic and rhythmic novelties. His quest for a highly personal style and language lasted for some 20 years, until the turn of the 1940s when he composed Le Vin herbé. According to Martin himself, this secular oratorio “was the first important work in which I spoke my own language’. These two decades were nevertheless punctuated by works which all revealed, to varying degrees, many of the composer’s original traits. Some were only modest pieces such as Pavane couleur du temps (1920), others more ambitious works such as La Nique à Satan (1931) or the Symphonie pour grand orchestre (1934).
In this context, the Esquisse for orchestra, composed in 1920 and premiered by Ernest Ansermet at the head of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on 30 October of that same year, is of particular interest. The piece was written at a time when the composer was taking leave of the German post-Romantics but had not yet deepened his study of rhythms (it was not until 1926 that he trained at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute), nor was he tempted by twelve-tone music. Therefore, this Esquisse is a search for colours and atmospheres (the strings are muted throughout the beginning of the work, for example). The use of instruments is traditional: the flute is voluble, the clarinet shimmering, the horn dark.
Through a succession of changes in the tempo, the composer skilfully varies his intention (Andante con moto - Allegretto giocoso - Adagio - Allegro giocoso - Tempo tranquillo - A tempo con malinconia - etc.). The various motives are brief, almost sketched out and precise. The climax of this short piece comes in a Tempo di valsa con fuoco: the orchestra can then go wild, not without a touch of humour and some surprises (numerous changes of time signature), before the lanterns gradually go out, leaving only two horns to hold a final octave perdendosi...
Frank Martin does not seem to have attached any particular importance to this work, which demonstrates, if anything, the severity with which he considered his creations. But this Esquisse indeed reveals a strong point of his personality: Frank Martin had the nature of a poet!
Translation: Michelle Bulloch – MUSITEXT
SVETLIN ROUSSEV violin
Since winning the first prize at the widely acclaimed first Sendai International Competition in May 2001, the charismatic violin virtuoso Svetlin Roussev enjoys a prestigious international career in many of the world’s major concert halls, including the Bolshoi Theatre and Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Seoul Arts Center, UNESCO, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Frankfurt’s Alte Oper, Konzerhaus in Berlin and Palais of the United Nations in Geneva.
Roussev is a regular guest soloist with various orchestras in the USA, Latin America, Asia and Europe. He has performed under the baton of conductors such as Myung-Whun Chung, Léon Fleisher, Yehudi Menuhin, Yuzo Toyama, Marek Janowski, Emmanuel Krivine, François-Xavier Roth and Jean-Jacques Kantorow.
He has been leading and conducting various ensembles and orchestras in Bulgaria, France, Poland, Korea, Japan and Sweden.
With remarkable virtuosity and intensity, Svetlin performs a broad repertoire ranging from the baroque to the contemporary. He is renowned for his renditions of Slavic compositions and keenly promotes Bulgarian music. Acclaimed Bulgarian Musician of the Year in 2006, his home country honoured him again in 2007, 2016 and 2019 with the Cristal Lyra distinction awarded by the Ministry of Culture. In 2018, Svetlin Roussev became an Honorary Citizen of his hometown Ruse, along with the Nobel Prize of literature Elias Canetti.
Svetlin Roussev’s CD recordings include works by Vladigerov, Sibelius, Hartmann, Grieg, Medtner, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Lalo, Ravel, Ysaÿe for the labels Ambroisie, Integral, Fondamenta, Decca, Arcantus and YESM & ARTS.
Roussev is a violin professor at the prestigious Haute école de musique in Geneva after 10 years being a professor at the CNSMDP in Paris. He has been giving violin and chamber music masterclasses around the world. He is also the artistic advisor and artist in residence of the March Music Days International Festival in his hometown Ruse after serving as artistic director and artist in residence of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra.
Svetlin Roussev has won numerous prizes at many international competitions, including Indianapolis, Long-Thibaud and Melbourne. He began his musical education in his home town of Ruse, Bulgaria, with his mother. At the age of 15, he was accepted into the CNSMD where he studied with Gérard Poulet, Devy Erlih and Jean-Jacques Kantorow. Three years later, the jury unanimously awarded him the first prize for violin and chamber music. Subsequently he entered the postgraduate program.
Svetlin Roussev performs on the Stradivarius 1710 Camposelice, a violin kindly loaned by the Nippon Music Foundation.