In the vast vacuum left by Arturo Toscanini’s retirement and death, French conductors were prominent among those who dominated the orchestral scene, especially in America. One of the most gifted was Jean Francisque-Étienne Martinon (1910–1976). His complete recordings for Deutsche Grammophon (as both conductor and composer) are here collected for the first time.
Conscripted into the French army on the outbreak of war in 1939, he was captured by the Germans the following year and spent more than two years in Stalag IX prisoner-of-war camp. After being released, Martinon conducted the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris (1943); he was then conductor of the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra (1943–45) and assistant conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris (1944–46). In 1947 he made his British début with the London Philharmonic, inaugurating a long association with that orchestra – he was associate conductor in 1947–49. He held posts with the Radio Éireann orchestra in Dublin (1948–50), the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris (1951–57), the Israel Philharmonic (1957–59) and the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra (1959–63).
Our first three discs contain the recordings Martinon made for Deutsche Grammophon, featuring two French orchestras, the Lamoureux and his own radio band, Orchestre National de l’ORTF. It is interesting to hear the old French woodwind and horn sound, with its pronounced vibrato, which still survived in the conductor’s lifetime; the woodier French bassoon sound is also extremely characterful.
The orchestral works (Bizet, Lalo) are followed by concerto collaborations with the great cellist Pierre Fournier (1906–1986) in concertos by Lalo and Saint-Saëns, as well as Bruch’s popular Kol Nidrei. As with Fournier, Martinon collaborated only once with harpist Nicanor Zabaleta (1907–1993) in the studio: in October 1969, with his own orchestra, they set down three major twentieth-century compositions for the harp by Saint-Saëns, Tailleferre and Ginastera, the concerto by Ginastera appearing on CD for the first time.
As a bonus we have one of Martinon’s finest compositions, for his own instrument. He wrote his first violin concerto, the Concerto giocoso, in 1937, but did not produce its successor until 1960. It was stimulated by the playing of the inimitable Polish-born virtuoso Henryk Szeryng (1918–88), who gave the première in 1961 and left at least two live recordings, including one with the composer conducting. The studio recording, made under ideal conditions in Munich with Rafael Kubelík on the podium, is considered one of the foremost performances of a modern violin concerto. The music is the work of a composer who has taken cognisance of all the trends in the twentieth century, including serialism, and has evolved his own style. In a rave review in The Gramophone, the discriminating critic Lionel Salter described this style as ‘free tonality’ and ‘post-Walton’ and singled out the central movement for special praise.
Issued as a companion set is Martinon’s extremely rare Philips recordings made between 1953 and 1956, with most recordings issued on CD for the first time: Decca Eloquence 4805588.
“Balance and recording are excellent … Martinon’s strings play their gorgeous melodies with equally gorgeous tone” Gramophone (Bizet)
“Fournier is impassioned and eloquent [in the Lalo], … expressive in the slow movement and rhythmic in the delightful Allegro presto dance section […] the Bruch is played with dignity and without undue emotionalism” Gramophone (Fournier/Martinon)
“[The Ginastera Concerto is] brilliantly scored for the orchestra and also exploits the solo instrument more fully than do the other pieces; indeed the texture of the music is unfailingly varied and unfailingly attractive. This is an interesting program, played superbly by Zabaly and well by the ORTF Orchestra” Gramophone (Zabaleta/Martinon)
“[The Martinon Violin Concerto] is deeply impressive … given its première by Szerying in 1961, it is haunting, the work of a real composer of individuality. It is lyrical but impassioned, with a rich vein of fantasy, economical in its use of resources, rhtymically vital, and expertly written for the soloist … Szeryng plays it superbly … a most arresting new work in a first-class recording.” Gramophone