For those engaged on an exploration of British music, the appearance of Carlo Martelli’s youthful Second Symphony on the Dutton Epoch label will have been a significant discovery. Unheard since the nineteen-fifties, this well-crafted essay is challenging and compares favourably with contemporary symphonies by Humphrey Searle, John Gardner, Benjamin Frankel and Malcolm Arnold. These explorers will have also enjoyed Persiflage and the Jubilee March which fall into the category of ‘light music’ – albeit finely crafted. Martelli has made more that 250 arrangements of ‘popular’ songs for string quartet many of which have been recorded. Many people will have heard Carlo Martelli’s music but few will have realised they have: this composer is (or was) most often heard in his film music. He is not featured on Classic FM like John Barry and John Williams, yet he contributed to a number of classic Hammer Horror pictures including The Curse of the Mummies Tomb, the scarily titled It, and Catacombs.
In addition to this film music there are a number of ‘art music’ compositions largely dating from Martelli’s younger days. Important works include a lost First Symphony, a Serenade for Strings and an opera.
Paul Conway has provided a detailed biography of the composer in the liner notes of the present CD as well as a major essay on MusicWeb International. Nevertheless, a few notes may help readers of this review.
Carlo Martelli was born in London in 1935 to an Italian father and an English mother. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William Lloyd Webber and Bernard Stevens. During the nineteen-fifties he composed a number of orchestral and chamber works which were performed at a variety of venues including the Cheltenham Festival and the Royal Festival Hall. With the advent of William Glock at the BBC, Martelli’s music was regarded as being insufficiently avant-garde and was promptly ignored. During these years he was a professional violist playing under the baton of Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli, wrote a number of film scores and the ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for string quartet. This latter music covered the field from 17th century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received many broadcasts. During the ‘eighties, Martelli composed a number of ‘light’ pieces including the above mentioned Persiflage (1983). In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s Paw and a children opera, The Curse of Christopher Columbus were composed.
It is always instructive to hear a composer’s Opus 1. Sometimes, one is underwhelmed by the banality of structure and effect. However, in the case of Martelli’s, even the most critical of listeners must be impressed. The present Quartet No.1 dates from 1953. Paul Conway is correct in stating that this is an ‘outstandingly mature utterance from a 17-year old composer.’ Usually, composer’s early works tend to be derivative – and reflect the achievements of their contemporaries or teachers. Often various styles can be seen to be at war with each other. In Carlo Martelli’s case it is easy to spot the influences – Bernard Stevens, the ‘pastoral’ school, Tudor polyphony, the rising tide of atonal and serial music (this is not a serial work) and Shostakovich. But what he has produced is a synthesis rather than a pastiche. The most important thing is that this music has withstood the onset of many musical fashions since it was composed. It provides the listener with interest from the first bar to the last. This String Quartet is a considerable work in four finely balanced movements.
Martelli’s Terzetto, Op.5 for 2 violins and viola was written in 1956. The general mood of this work is of strong logic, rigorous development of musical ideas and a sense of urgency. The composer had recently taken part in a performance of Anton Dvorak’s eponymous work and had chosen to write an essay for the same instrumental forces. Dvorak’s work was composed in 1887 and was in four movements: Martelli has used three – an ‘allegro moderato’, an ‘andante cantabile’ and a concluding ‘vivace’. Paul Conway points out that the composer refers to his recently completed symphony by quoting a theme in the opening allegro. The middle movement, andante cantabile, is reflective and ultimately sad. The ‘vivace’ is more abandoned and makes use of something approaching a folk-tune. Yet this is no Morris Men on the village green: Bartok is our man here – not Cecil Sharp. The Terzetto is a serious work, well planned and sounding technically accomplished. Dvorak’s exemplar may be ‘persiflage’: Martelli’s contains deeper things.
The most recent work on this CD is the impressive Prelude and Fugue for string sextet. The composer has added a second viola and cello to the standard quartet. I am not sure that I would have appreciated the original incarnation of this work –it was composed for some 18 violas of the National Youth Orchestra. In 2003 the work was recast in its present form. The music is compelling from the first bar of the ‘prelude’ through the anything-but-academic fugue to the recapitulation of a theme from the opening bars. I am not an expert on ‘fugue’ but is this a ‘double fugue’? This is beautiful stuff. It is a work that demands to be heard over and over again.
The final essay on this exploration of Carlo Martelli’s chamber music is the String Quartet No. 2. This was written in 1954, the year following his first essay for the medium. Conway suggests that it is a ‘grittier’ work than the mellow polyphony of the first exercise. However, the composer has a way of surprising us. For example the second subject of the opening ‘allegro non troppo’ is a surprisingly lyrical, almost ‘pop’ tune that contrasts dramatically with the acerbic writing of the opening theme. It is this balance of styles that characterises this work. I loved the bustling scherzo. It is less ‘exploratory’ in mood than the opening movement: it is exiting and makes use of a guitar-like strumming which gives a ‘Mediterranean’ feel to this music. The ‘trio’ by contrast is quiet and reticent. Fortunately, this mood is soon broken by the return of the ‘sun-drenched’ tune. The heart of this Quartet is the Lament, lento, which follows on after the scherzo. This is once again lyrical music that is heart-rending in its intensity. Martelli creates an unusual formal device at the end of this concentrated music: he repeats the ‘trio’ from the ‘scherzo’ and brings the ‘slow’ movement to a close with a reprise of the ‘scherzo’ music. It is a satisfying conceit. The final movement is a set of variations based on an ‘original theme’ by the composer.
Arthur Jacobs, after a performance of this Quartet at the Wigmore Hall, described it as 'brimming over with ideas...a keen grasp of structure' and 'excellently written for strings'. It is an opinion that holds well today nearly sixty years on.
Paul Conway has provided a stunning set of liner notes for this CD. He introduces Carlo Martelli and gives a detailed, but not dry, description of each piece. It is an important essay on the composer and his chamber music. I have not come across the Pavão Quartet; however their playing on all the pieces presented is superb. They have recorded Martelli’s music before, with ‘The Great American Song Book’. I do not possess this CD, but the composer was kind enough to play excerpts when I last visited him. It is a model of an arranger’s genius: alas, it is a difficult CD to get hold off. The Pavão Quartet has been singularly praised for their discs of quartets by Edward Elgar and Arnold Bax. The Quartet was formed in 1998 at the Royal Academy of Music.
This CD is an outstanding introduction to Carlo Martelli’s chamber works. It is music that is well-constructed, always satisfying in performance, and ultimately moving. I find that these are works that I can do business with.
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op.1 (1953) Prelude & Fugue for string quartet Op.10 (2003)
Terzetto for 2 violins and viola Op.5 (1956) String Quartet No, 2 Op.2 (1954) Pavão Quartet, Kerenza Peacock (violin) Jenny Sacha (violin) Natalia Gomes (viola) Byrony James (cello) Zoe Matthews (viola, Prelude & Fugue) Nicola Tait (cello, Prelude & Fugue)