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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Double Concerto for Strings, Piano and Timpani (1940) [22’39]
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1931) [17’53]
Tre Ricercare (1938) [14’22]
Jean-François Heisser, Alain Planès (pianos); Jean Camosi (timpani); Brandis Quartet
French National Orchestra/James Conlon
Recorded in Studio 104, Radio France, Paris, 30 Jan.-3 Feb. 1990
WARNER APEX 2564 62035-2 [54’37]

 


This is yet another budget Apex re-issue that started life as an Erato full price disc before becoming part of a super-budget Warner Ultima double pack. In fact, it was probably even better value in that form, as it also included the superb Three Frescoes, Sinfonietta La Jolla and the quite rare Toccata e due canzoni. I suppose it was logical to split them up and group together the composer’s most famous concertante-style works, and it’s certainly welcome at this price.

There were misgivings in critical quarters on these performances’ first appearance, mainly to do with sound and balance. The Penguin Guide in particular felt that the violins were unnaturally close and poor microphone placing gave the wrong perspective. The Concerto for String Quartet was especially singled out in this regard, though they did praise the performances generally. I’m not sure whether the sound has been cleaned up, even though this could not alter the original recording balance, but it did not bother me too much. The spirited playing of all concerned certainly does compensate to what is an admittedly close recording, but there does seem to be some ‘air’ around the sound and it is preferable - in my opinion - to an aggressively boomy or distantly resonant acoustic for this music.

The great Double Concerto does have some hot competition in the catalogue, and most critics seem to agree the best of the bunch is Bĕlohlávek and his in-form Czech Philharmonic on Chandos. I haven’t actually sampled that, but did have to hand another recommendation, that of Mackerras and the Brno State P.O. on Conifer, interestingly coupled with the Spaliček ballet suite. As one might imagine, the Brno players do sound a touch more idiomatic in certain areas, such as wind and brass solos, but the strings are no better than Conlon’s French forces, and timings are remarkably similar. There is plenty of punch and weight in Conlon’s reading which the close recording helps rather than hinders.

The other works are similarly satisfying in their own way. The Brandis Quartet play superbly in the Concerto for String Quartet and the Tre Ricercare - basically a chamber concerto for two pianos - makes a welcome counterpart to the more-famous Double Concerto, sharing many of its structural, rhythmic and harmonic characteristics. Again, Conlon keeps a tight rein on things, making the most of the edgy ostinati and driving neo-classical allegros.

Notes are quite good, and the price is certainly in the disc’s favour. You may well have to sample this one to see if that sound bothers you, but on a purely artistic level these are pretty compelling performances.

Tony Haywood



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