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Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014, Martin James Bartlett has become a welcome and friendly presence in concert halls as in the media, while also pursuing his further studies as a Foundation Scholar at London’s Royal College of Music.
Having recently signed to major label Warner Classics, Martin’s debut album was released at the start of May. Entitled “Love and Death”, the recording must I believe be regarded as marking a very significant arrival in the classical music world, Bartlett casting his spell with an imaginative programme of music by J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Enrique Granados and Sergei Prokofiev…
“It is fascinating for me to see how composers find inspiration from their fellow artists, past and present, to find the means of expressing the human experience through art. And no two things could be more fundamental to the human condition than love and death.”
So writes Bartlett in the booklet note to this recording, immediately hinting at a maturity beyond his years. And as we shall see, that promise is fully borne out in his playing.
If any are tempted to wonder whether such a young performer will offer a vision of love and death which is revelatory rather than merely kitsch, any doubts dissipate from the first note, Bartlett opening with two Bach transcriptions, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 177 (transcribed by Busoni) and Myra Hess’s celebrated version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
Here Bartlett mixes a reverent sense of depth, so befitting of this music, with deliciously fresh insight. The lyricism with which he shapes each phrase of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ is immediately absorbing, his subsequent reading of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring no less transcendent.
These pieces give way to a selection of Liszt’s piano music, but again those anticipating a youthful display of shallow virtuosity will be confounded by Bartlett’s selection of more serious, mature works, led by the three Sonetti del Petrarca S161/4-6.
Here, again, Bartlett is alert to every detail in the music, while never losing a sense of the overarching shape and flow of each piece. The first announces itself as a breath of triumphant humanism following on from the hymn-like music which precedes it. The restlessness and shifting moods of the second and third pieces in the trilogy are no less-well defined here, Bartlett bringing extraordinary contrasts of colour while teasing out this music’s narrative flow.
Liebestraum No.3 S298/2 follows, one of Liszt’s most popular pieces, and then (central to the album’s theme) his transcription Liebeslied S566a. Liszt’s source here is the passionate song Widmung Op.25/1, written by the young Robert Schumann to Clara Weick, about which Bartlett notes,
“It is a love song that also speaks of death, and it concludes with a quote from Schubert’s Ave Maria, introducing the idea of heavenly love.”
El Amor y la muerte (Balada) from Enrique Granados’ Goyescas Op.11 follows, and is described in Bartlett’s booklet note as “the centrepiece of the album”. Recounting the composer’s story, he writes,
“On 7 March 1916 Granados performed his piano suite Goyescas for President Woodrow Wilson. Travelling home to Spain from this recital, the ferry SS Sussex, on which Granados was a passenger, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the English Channel. Leaving the safety of his lifeboat, Granados drowned in a desperate attempt to save his dying wife, Amparo.
The real-life tragedy that followed the final performance of the work adds a poignancy to this impassioned masterwork”.
Quite so, and I would add that Bartlett’s impassioned performance further adds to the impact of this tremendous piece.
How fittingly romantic, too, that Bartlett follows this with Isoldens Liebstod, transcribed by Liszt from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Here the pianist navigates the sinuous melodrama of Wagner’s contrapuntal chromaticism with aplomb, successfully building the drama and lifting the listener’s expectations as the music reaches its multiple ecstatic climaxes.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 in B flat Op.83 might seem a somewhat jarring successor, the work’s quirky opening quickly giving way to angry outbursts and turbulent dissonance.
And yet the central Andante caloroso reveals a striking connection to the album’s theme:
“The melody is based on the Schumann lied “Wehmut” (translated as “sadness” or “melancholy”) from the Liederkreis Op.39. This small and rather unassuming song speaks of a caged nightingale that can sing beautifully from its dungeon, but those who understand unrequited love can hear the deep sorrow in the song”.
Bartlett’s interpretation, so mature and thoughtful elsewhere in the set, has a more youthful spark here which magnificently conveys the sense of violence and heartbreak that lies at the heart of this devastating music.
Indeed, this is an outstanding reading, and Bartlett’s panache in the eviscerating Finale brings his superb recital to a resounding close.
Love and Death was recorded in Feb/March 2019 at the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. The producer was Stephen Johns and engineer Arne Akselberg. The piano sound is fabulously captured, with sumptuous tone and excellent clarity.
The album is available to stream on all major platforms, while those who (like me) purchase the physical CD can enjoy Warner’s classy gatefold packaging and Bartlett’s erudite booklet notes, as well as the words to the poems and songs which inspired the music.
For an artist who has a genial personality, engaging stage manner and youthful zest, Love and Death proves to be something of a surprise: an album with a focus on intimacy, depth of mood, and which often traverses difficult emotional terrain.
Bartlett proves more than up to the task, delivering consistently superb performances here, and showing himself to be a player of mature stature. With such a startling debut now under his belt, it will be interesting indeed to see how this pianist develops!
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