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In 1949, a little while after completing his oratorio Golgotha, Martin wrote the Concerto for the Bernische Musikgesellschaft, which had commissioned an orchestral piece from him and performed it for the first time in the same year, under the direction of Luc Balmer. Both the concerto format and the instrumentation were chosen by Martin himself, and the task he set himself in making this choice was by no means easy. For the seven solo instruments are very different in character and playing technique, and while for this very reason the bringing together of this ensemble is so attractive (and also as regards the additional contrast with the string orchestra), it is difficult to adjust the specific components to one another, particularly in the technically more demanding passages, and to produce a relationship of formal balance. The fact that one doesn’t notice these difficulties in the piece makes it a brilliant virtuoso piece in the art of composition as well.
All that Martin’s Concerto has in common with the traditional instrumental concerto form is the layout in three movements following a fast-slow-fast plan. The disposition of the smaller formal units results from the necessity of quick alternation between solo and ensemble sections on the one hand, and between different groupings of both on the other. The playful form of chamber-music-like competition which is one of the means by which this alternation is accomplished reminds one of a typical example of the concerto grosso literature, and the lightly conversational tone, which gains a slightly Spanish colouration from the occasional triplet figures in the wind parts, may bring similar reminiscences to mind. All the same, Martin’s music has a strongly symphonic impetus which comes particularly to the fore in the large-scale climaxes, and greatly influences their format.
This emerges without detriment to the general lightweight stance of the music, as for example in the first movement where, after the goodnatured entries of the wind instruments, the concertante urge arising from the interplay of the two groups is intensified (figures 8 – 11), and then again, even more clearly, in the quasi-recapitulation (14 – 18), whose energy is, of course, stabilised in the lyrical postlude. But the tendency to symphonic expansiveness persists unabated in the middle movement, which has a fixed point of reference in the twice returning, sharply profiled string melody at the beginning and the ostinato figure in thirds in the accompanying parts, which points the contrast with the main figure. The dance-like finale then releases an almost pent-up energy. Here the woodwinds mainly appear in a cooperative guise, though an extended solo episode gives the timpanist his great moment, and in the subsequent dramatically constructed march-inter mezzo the horn, previously rather neglected, comes into its own. This gives rise to the actual climax of the whole piece, leading as it does to a crescendoing “solo” on the full orchestra, which brings into play an augmented form of the expressive vocal cantilena first presented by the bassoon in the middle movement (32 – 34), and takes the march music to a climax in a sort of stretto. After a whirling round-dance related to the woodwind capers in the first section, the movement ends with an equally cheerful but thematically independent final dance.
The unproblematic character of Martin’s music, always disregarding certain expressive qualities in the finale in particular, is a phenomenon of style. Essentially it rests on the sublimation-effect of a highly varied chromatic harmony, allied but not bound to tonality, and this effect is well pointed in the previously well-prepared, noisy final chord in F major.