C1704. JEAN MARTINON Cond. Chicago Orchestra, w. Steven Staryk, Adolph Herseth, Ray Still, Donald Peck & Joane Bennett: Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F; w. Maria Stader: 'Wedding Cantata' Weichert nur, betrübte Schatten - Live Performance, 2 June, 1966 [Sterling, breathtaking performances in the superb Orchestra Hall acoustic]; JEAN MARTINON Cond. ORTF S.O.: Die Kunst der Fuge - Live Performance, 14 Jan., 1970, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Paris (all Bach). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-623. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“There was a time when major orchestra conductors who were not early-music specialists considered that the works of Johann Sebastian Bach belonged to them as much as to anyone, and who also felt that it belonged to general audiences. That day has largely vanished - I know this because in the years that I managed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was difficult if not impossible to convince a major conductor to perform Bach. Georg Solti was one of the last willing to risk the wrath of the critics. But if you look at orchestra programs prior to the 1960s and 1970s, you find regular appearances of the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, not to mention Stokowski’s resplendent transcriptions of organ works. This disc under Jean Martinon vividly recalls that era and makes clear what we are missing by having allowed HIP specialists to claim a virtual monopoly on this music.
Bach’s DIE KUNST DER FUGE, or The Art of the Fugue, is famously just a set of notes on paper with no indication as to the performing forces. As a result it has been performed and recorded by everything from a saxophone quartet to an orchestra, most frequently on organ or harpsichord. This particular orchestration, by Claude Pascal and Marcel Bitsch, was created in 1967 and has been recorded before by Karl Ristenpart and the Saar Radio Orchestra. As you might expect, Ristenpart’s textures are leaner, his rhythms more incisive, and the tempos more strictly adhered to. And, of course, a level of vibrato is applied to string playing by Martinon that would not be expected today (but which, if I may admit it, I enjoyed hearing).
However, do not think that all of this means that Martinon’s reading is self-indulgent and overly romanticized. He approaches Bach with reverence but not with awe. Tempi are on the leisurely side, certainly, but they don’t drag. Phrases are generously filled out, and the French Radio Orchestra plays beautifully for him. One senses that the orchestra’s principal players are enjoying the opportunity to engage with Bach’s masterpiece, and much of the solo playing is at a very high level. Textures are clear throughout, so the crucial element of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is never slighted.
In those days Bach also appeared on subscription concerts of major American orchestras, and St. Laurent Studio fills these two discs out with excerpts from a 1966 Chicago Symphony concert. The highlight is Maria Stader’s gleaming soprano sensitively shaping the ‘Wedding Cantata’, lovingly accompanied by Martinon and members of the orchestra, with particularly lovely oboe playing by Ray Still. By 1966 the Hungarian-born and later Swiss Stader had become an acknowledged Bach specialist, and her comfort with the style is complete. However, her artistry should not minimize the brilliance of Adolph (‘Bud’) Herseth’s achievement in the Second Brandenburg Concerto on the same program. What always distinguished Herseth’s playing was not so much his technical brilliance (though he surely had that), but his cantabile playing, his legato. He always said that his three musical idols were singers - Jussi Björling, John McCormack, and Frank Sinatra. Herseth and the other CSO principals here were in their prime; particularly notable is concertmaster Steven Staryk’s lovely playing in the second movement. It is clearly the playing of a violinist trained in another era but none the less beautiful for that, if we can put aside our period-accustomed ears.
These two discs came as a total and very pleasant surprise to me. I have become so accustomed to today’s way of performing Bach that I anticipated finding Martinon perhaps too heavy-handed and wayward. Instead, it turned out to be a bracing and invigorating experience. The recorded sound is very good broadcast quality. Applause after each piece has been retained but is quickly faded. As usual with this label, there are no notes or texts but full documentation about sources.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“In the words of one of his biographers, conductor Jean Martinon's performances ‘were distinguished by a concern for translucent orchestral textures, and sustained by a subtle sense of rhythm and phrasing’. Occasionally, ‘he stressed a poetic inflection at the expense of literal accuracy’.
Martinon's first instrument was the violin; he studied at the Lyons Conservatory (1924-1925), then transferred to the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prize in violin upon his graduation in 1928. He subsequently studied composition, with Albert Roussel, and conducting, with Charles Münch and Roger Desormière. Until the outbreak of World War II, Martinon was primarily a composer. His early substantial works include a Symphoniette for piano, percussion, and strings (1935); Symphony #1 (1936); Concerto giocoso for violin and orchestra (1937); and a wind quintet (1938). At the start of the war he was drafted into the French army. Taken prisoner in 1940, he passed the next two years in a Nazi labor camp. There, he wrote’ Stalag IX’ (Musique d'exil), an orchestral piece incorporating elements of jazz; during his internment, he also composed several religious works, including ’Absolve’, ‘Domine’ for male chorus and orchestra, and ‘Psalm 136’ (Chant des captifs), the latter receiving a composition prize from the city of Paris in 1946.
Upon his release from the Nazi camp, Martinon became conductor of the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra (from 1943 to 1945) and assistant conductor of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra (from 1944 to 1946), then associate conductor of the London Philharmonic (from 1947 to 1949). He toured as a guest conductor as well, although his U.S. début did not come until 1957, with the Boston Symphony giving the American premiere of his Symphony #2. Although he devoted as much time as he could to composing in the early postwar years -- producing a string quartet (1946), an ‘Irish’ Symphony (1948), the ballet ‘Ambohimang’a (1946), and the opera HÉCUBE (1949-1954) -- he was increasingly occupied with conducting, working with the Concerts Lamoureux (from 1951 to 1957), the Israel Philharmonic (from 1957 to 1959), and Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra (from 1960 to 1966). Martinon resumed his career as a composer around 1960, writing his Violin Concerto #2 (1960) for Henryk Szeryng, his Cello Concerto (1964) for Pierre Fournier, and his Symphony #4 (‘Altitudes’), composed in 1965, for the 75th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony. He acknowledged Prokofiev and Bartók as strong influences on his scores, which meld Expressionism with French Neoclassicism. Martinon continued composing into the 1970s, but he seldom recorded any of his own music, with the notable exceptions of the Second Symphony, ‘Hymne à la vie’ (ORTF, for Barclay Inedits) and Fourth Symphony, ‘Altitudes"’ (Chicago SO, for RCA).
In 1963, he succeeded Fritz Reiner as head of the Chicago Symphony. Martinon's tenure there was difficult. In five seasons, he conducted 60 works by modern European and American composers, and made a number of outstanding LPs for RCA, mostly of bracing twentieth century repertory in audiophile sound. Chicago's conservative music lovers soon sent him packing.
Martinon jumped at the chance to take over the French National Radio Orchestra in 1968; working with this ensemble, he recorded almost the entire standard French repertory for Erato and EMI. His earlier Erato efforts that focused on such secondary but nevertheless interesting figures as Roussel, Pierné, and Dukas, whereas EMI assigned him integral sets of the Saint-Saëns symphonies and the orchestral works of Debussy and Ravel, among other projects. In 1974, he was appointed principal conductor of the Residentie Orkest in The Hague, but he died before that relationship could bear much fruit.”
- James Reel, allmusic.com