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The oboe is first to take the spotlight in Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion and string orchestra, a stunning ‘concert in a concert’ that showcases the individual players in the ensemble. Martin wrote this concerto for the musicians of the Bern Musikgesellschaft and while the orchestra commissioned the work, it was Martin who chose the instrumentation, giving solo lines to the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and trombone – as well as timpani and percussion.
Martin showed musical promise early in his life, improvising at the piano until his older sisters – who were taking music lessons – taught him music notation.
He wrote his first composition before he was 10 and was deeply affected by an Easter performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion when he was barely into his teens. Swiss composer Joseph Lauber taught Martin piano, harmony and composition, but Martin enrolled in mathematics and physics at university in Geneva when he finished school. He continued to compose, however, even after he was called up as a telephonist during World War I. After the war, he lived in Zürich, Rome and Paris before returning to Geneva in 1926, studying rhythmic theory with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze – after which he began teaching at Jaques-Dalcroze’s institute.
By the time Martin wrote his Concerto for the Bern Musikgesellschaft – who gave the premiere, conducted by Luc Balmer, in 1949 – he was an experienced teacher, composer and performer, had led the Technicum Moderne de Musique as director and served as president of the Swiss Musicians’ Union, before moving to the Netherlands in 1946.
In this concerto, Martin deliberately composed music that was both brilliant and technically difficult. ‘I set out to display the musical qualities of the various soloists in the wind and brass groups as well as their virtuosity,’ he wrote. ‘I also tried to make the most of the characters of sonority and expression of the seven instruments, which differ so greatly in the manner of producing sound and in their mechanism.’
The opening movement is playful, even competitive, as the music is passed from soloist to soloist – each instrument with their own personality.
Throughout the concerto the soloists are featured alone or in small groups, in a neo-Baroque take on the traditional concerto grosso form.
The mysterious Adagietto movement opens with pizzicato strings treading an ominous beat, an effect which the great music writer Michael Steinberg likened to the tick-tocking movement that gave Joseph Haydn’s ‘Clock Symphony’ its nickname. Here, though, the effect is more unsettling, with almost a hint of Shostakovich as the music becomes an eerie march.
The steady beat, as Martin put it, ‘serves as an accompaniment to the melodic elements: sometimes serene, sometimes dark and violent. A lyrical phrase first heard in the bassoon’s upper register is repeated by the trombone with a gentle nobility at the conclusion.’
The timpani really comes into its own in the finale, which is at times antagonistic, mischievous and boisterous, culminating in a spectacular, free-wheeling dance.
© Angus McPherson, 2023