By Brian Wise | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
It seems that Bohuslav Martinů never took a day off. Even as he was exiled from his Czech homeland and fled Paris as the Nazis advanced, the industrious composer kept churning out new music—ultimately, more than 400 compositions in virtually every genre. Holding a special place in this output are the three sonatas for cello and piano, each one relating to a specific chapter in the last 20 years of Martinů’s life.
“It’s really not everyday repertoire,” admits Johannes Moser, who together with Russian pianist Andrei Korobeinikov became the latest in a small handful of performers to record the complete trilogy, which the Pentatone label released in November. “I discovered that these pieces have such variety and depth. Of course, there is the stereotype that Martinů just does a lot of syncopations, and it all sounds a little bit the same. But within the three sonatas, his range of expression and his range of emotion are really vast.”
The German-Canadian cellist came to the sonata trilogy after having performed Martinů’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Variations on a Theme of Rossini, among the dozen or so works that Martinů composed for the solo cello. But the sonatas offer a natural entry point: compact, moderately challenging, and emotionally rich, mixing an urbane sophistication with a homesick soulfulness.
The Parisian Sonata
Though he famously spent much of his boyhood holed up in a church tower high above the Bohemian town of Polička, Martinů had been a 15-year resident of Paris by the time he completed the First Cello Sonata in May 1939. It was a few weeks after the Nazis had invaded the Czech lands, and the piece opens with a kind of danse macabre, the music nervously shifting between light and dark textures, and the cello line heavy with double-stops.
“He is twisting and turning like a dervish,” says Moser, speaking from his home in Vienna. “He’s almost uncomfortable with himself. It’s constantly wicked. You have to sort of roll with that. If you just play it straight, I think most of the magic is lost. I think you need to incorporate character as quickly as you can and as much as you can.”
Martinů dedicated the sonata to Pierre Fournier, who gave the premiere in Paris in May 1940, accompanied by Rudolf Firkušny, another Czech exile. Moser hears Fournier’s imprint on the haltingly elegant first movement. “Fournier was a very elegant man,” Moser says, “and maybe because of the polio that he had as a kid, he was also careful in the way that he moved around. That could also be part of the character of the sonata.”
Though Moser cautions against connecting world events too closely to the musical expression, the fretful mood of the slow movement and the bristling, motoric finale seem indicative of the times. The premiere served as Martinů’s farewell to Paris, coming nine days before Germany began its attack on France. The composer described the concert as “a last greeting, a beam of light from a better world.” He added, “For several minutes we realized what music could give us and we forgot about reality.” The next month, Martinů and wife Charlotte fled Paris, first for the south of France and eventually for New York, where they arrived in March 1941.
The Second Cello Sonata was among the first works that Martinů wrote in the United States, where he struggled with homesickness and depression, much as Bartók did when he arrived six months later. New York City did not agree with the high-strung composer but, with only four scores in his luggage, he needed to focus on relaunching his career. He met Frank Rybka, a Czech cellist who helped Martinů and his wife secure an apartment in Jamaica Estates, Queens, a leafy residential neighborhood. Martinů dedicated the sonata to Rybka, whose son later described “a sensitive, lyrical piece that is evenly balanced to display both instruments.” He also admitted that “Martinů found it strenuous to work on this sonata.”
The work’s turbulent opening seems to embody this strain, and the unease persists through the ruminative second movement. But memories of Bohemia emerge in the finale, seemingly a cross between a Czech folk dance and a funkier new-world rhythm. The cellist must articulate its “gnarly” textures, says Moser. “Because the piano’s attack is so direct, and the stringed instrument’s attack is so gradual, in a lot of syncopated moments you have to sacrifice a gradual easing into the tone for really attacking with a lot of bite,” he says. “Especially in the finale of the second sonata, I [initially] fell a little bit short in being as pronounced as the piano. That was really most of the work that we were putting in.”
Another challenge for the cellist involves Martinů’s tonal but often dense harmonic idiom. “It’s written quite well for the left hand but there are some really bizarre runs from time to time,” says Moser, referring to passages where the harmony and melodic line don’t predictably align. “Harmonic analysis is super important with this kind of music. Because it’s never random. If you can play the notes in a harmonic context, then suddenly, they make sense, and you can shape the phrase.”
An Enigmatic Third
Unlike its brooding, anxious predecessors, Martinů’s Cello Sonata No. 3 is harder to categorize. He completed it in 1952 and dedicated it to the Dutch-born cellist Hans Kindler, who had served as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. The outer movements have a loose-knit buoyancy, suggesting the influence of jazz, while the central Andante exudes a lush Romanticism. Moser hears echoes of gospel music in the score. “It’s by far the most optimistic sonata,” he says. “It’s the brightest of them all.”
Moser admires the idiomatic cello writing in all three sonatas, perhaps evidence of Martinů’s own background as a violinist. “There are very few moments where I feel like he was writing against the instrument,” he says. “That is very much in the Beethoven tradition. He doesn’t go above a certain position on the cello and the double-stops are very possible and very thought-out.”
Moser and Korobeinikov recorded the sonatas in the Dutch countryside in the spring of 2022. The war in Ukraine was escalating, providing a dark backdrop to music that was shaped by wartime, emigration, and a longing for home. Korobeinikov describes Martinů as a “genius introvert” and admires how his sonatas do not pit cello against piano but rather unite the instruments in the texture. “He seems to be saying, ‘We are two sides of one entity,’” Korobeinikov says. He adds that the sonatas thrive under “big musical temperaments” and performers who can “play very bravely.”
Working from Home
Moser paused his performance activities this fall as he was sidelined with illness. Though he opts not to discuss the particulars, he wrote in a recent Facebook post that he is steadily recovering. “Although my condition is now under control and healing is underway,” he wrote, “I will have to take a longer stretch off from touring to fully recover, and I am hopeful to resume my concerts by the New Year.”
In the meantime, being homebound may come as second nature. Since the start of the pandemic, Moser has expanded his YouTube presence with an array of performance videos, practice tips, and live chats. His recent solo album, Alone Together, is an outgrowth of this work, featuring multitracked arrangements for cello ensemble of works by Grieg, Barber, and Popper, as well as numerous contemporary composers.
“What I loved about the video work during the pandemic was it was really a way to stay in communication [with others], but not as a one-way street,” he says. “Some of that was through the comments but also through videos that people sent me to comment on. There was always a dialogue. What I really liked is the community rose to the occasion. We decided that not everybody can fend for themselves, but we’re going to go through this together.
“Of course, now that concert life has resumed, it’s a little hard to keep up the video work with the same frequency or intensity, but I do stay connected with my social media friends and followers.”
The pandemic has prompted some artists and concert presenters to shake up their programming, a fact that may bode well for the music of Martinů. Though many cellists have favored the third sonata as a starting point, Moser is especially drawn to the second sonata. “I think it’s probably the most effective,” he says. “My dream is to do all three sonatas in an evening but, of course, every promoter is going to have a heart attack at that proposition.” Still, Moser is undaunted. “The journey that you can take through the sonatas, it’s really quite remarkable.”