MARTINU: Complete Music for Violin and Orchestra – Matousek (vln) / Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/ Hogwood – Hyperion

by | Feb 25, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Bohuslav MARTINU: Complete Music for Violin and Orchestra – Bohuslav Matousek (violin) & the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Christopher Hogwood) – Hyperion 44611 (4 discs) (reissued) 2/18, (4:05 total time): ****:

(Bohulsav Matousek; violin and viola, Jennifer Koh; violin, Karel Kosarek; piano, Regis Pasquier; violin, Janne Thomsen; flute)

The classical music aficionado likely finds his way into the world of Martinu by way of a live performance of one of the string quartets, which never fail to leave a vivid impression. These three works have long been established as major 20th-century works justly placed on the level with the more famous Bartok quartets. The quartets send the neophyte scampering away to find recordings of the other chamber works, of which there are a good number. The rewards and surprises of this repertoire abound: modernist edge, jazzy rhythms, Bohemian tunefulness, and an expressive reach which tends toward the ‘hot’ end of the mood spectrum. You are unlikely to ever see the sextets or piano quintets in concert, but they are worth ferreting out, and happily, superb recordings are available. (A personal favorite is the Praga disc, which includes the two quintets and the thrilling Piano quartet played by the Kocian Quartet with Ivan Klansky)

Another way to discover Martinu is to simply ask: what 20th century composer most successfully emulates the virtues and technical aplomb of early Stravinsky? Martinu, especially in his music from the ‘30s is a good candidate. No sooner did Martinu descend from his bell-tower (he was famously born and raised in an old Bohemian Church tower in Policka, in the present-day Czech Republic.) then he encountered the leading French composers of the ‘20’s, Debussy, Roussel and, above all, the transplanted Stravinsky.  To these influences would be added the arrival of jazz as a both idiom and idea. Benefitting from a memory of Mozartian infallibility, the young Martinu had a supreme ability to assimilate all sorts of music, including it in his prodigious  creative work. It seems the encounter with the composer of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring left an especially strong impression.

One breathes the Stravinksian air in much of the concerto and orchestral work. The dominant quality is vivaciousness. He relishes in agitato, a helter-skelter racing about. In life, Martinu was serious and withdrawn but his music expresses the opposite qualities of whimsy, mercurial mood shifts and irrepressible ideas which  scarcely arrive at a conclusion before they are overtaken by new inspirations. Greatly fond of virtuosity and musical athleticism, especially in his writing for strings, his work is challenging, but only for the musicians (unlike Bartok). For the listener, his music is entirely accessible and nearly always exciting.

Portrait Bohuslav Martinu

Bohuslav Martinu

Hyperion has just released a splendid (and super-budget-priced) collection of all the music for violin and orchestra recorded over a decade ago by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Christopher Hogwood with Bohuslav Matousek on the violin. It is a chance to gather together  a generous sample of the composer’s larger scale works over a period of 20 years, works which are not easy to come by in the concert hall and very much worth hearing. In addition, we get a superb recording of the concerto for viola (on a borrowed Baroque period instrument), which surely ranks as one of the best ever penned.

The immediate impression that Bohuslav Matousek is equal to the task of these demanding works. The Hyperion sonics flatter his fiddle, positioned perfectly in an ample and warm room. There are moments when technical virtuosity is nearly too prominent. The first violin concerto (disc four) was commissioned by a show-stopping violinist who demanded bravura demonstrations, thus we get the cruel triple-stop (no way to treat a violin) and the 14th position utlrasonics, along with sizzling passages of diabolical fingering. That work is is exhaustingly impressive. However, most of the writing exemplifies the serious inventiveness of the composer, his tremendous feeling for orchestral part-writing and his colorful timbres, all pushed along with vivace jollity. The later Violin Concerto No. 2. H293 is dignified and somber, the violin floats serenely over vehement orchestral disturbances. A few slack moments approach a tedious grandiosity, but mostly it is emphatic treatment of big and good ideas authoritatively presented by Matousek.

If one had to pick a single disc for a road trip, it would have to be the third which contains the two Suite concertante for violin and orchestra, H276 (1939) and H276A (1944) The second is a reworking of the first but substantially a new work.  Martinu spent the war years in the United States, where he enjoyed a great deal of commercial and critical success. He arrived as a refuge from the occupation of France, bereft of his manuscripts and forced to reinvent himself. And what a reinvention it was! A typical work that captures his patented reworking of Baroque forms is the exuberant  Concerto da camera H285 (1941) It feels as if a soulful Bohemian violin is trying to recover a Corellian vibe while contending with a brainy piano part according to a rival slavic sensibility, say that of Prokofiev. Disc two features a second Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra H342 which has a less-chaotic Neo-Classical texture, but no less energy.

Disc One has two works from the late ‘30s, the first of which includes flute. Janne Thomsen shines brilliantly on her closely- miked instrument. Pastoral and intermittently Dvorakian, the adagio ambles along tunefully and drowsily for eight minutes. It must be said, that this composer is not always so successful with his slower movements. The Adagio of the subsequent Duo Concertante begins a gruesome dialog. The orchestra raises the temperature with timpanis banging away. From crescendos to sour violin interplay, the piece creeps along while the sleepy audience waits for the credits to roll. As expected, a romping Allegro sets the piece back on its feet. A second Concerto in D- Major abandons the slow movement all together and is better for it. The H329 with Jennifer Koh starts with lofty declarations and gallops across what sounds like an American landscape. Copland is not far off, but also the heartfelt melodicism of Barber. To my ears, his 1950 work is perhaps the finest in the set.

Overall, this compilation can be heartily recommended. Martinu is a 20th century giant and the extent of his oeuvre is not easy to comprehend. 15 operas can be left to those with the requisite powers of gustation and digestion, but the chamber music should not be missed. And now there is a compelling invitation to sample a good portion of his outstanding orchestral work. I only wish Hyperion would think to release a companion anthology of his orchestral work for cello.

—Fritz Balwit

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