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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Violin Concerto No. 2 H 293 (1943) [29:59]
Serenade No. 2 for strings H 216 (1932) [7:20]
Toccata e due canzoni H 311 for strings and piano obbligato (1947) [24:30]
Isabelle Faust (violin); Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Prague Philharmonia/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. June 1996, Rudolfinum, Prague. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC901951 [62:54]
Experience Classicsonline

The appearance of new Martinů CDs is very much more common these days. Three of the four CDs of works for violin/viola and orchestra from Hyperion and Matousek  works are already out (see reviews: 1, 2, 3). That admirable set will soon be completed. What can this disc add? 

For years the Second Violin Concerto was known only from the Josef Suk recording on Supraphon. Since then the historic recording by Louis Kaufman (see review) has appeared alongside several other newer ones including that by Jennifer Koh on Cedille (see review). Faust and Bělohlávek are not going to make your choice easier by turning in a poor version. This is in fact vibrant and taut music-making and Faust is tense, emotive and ardent. She reveals Martinů, the latter-day Bruch, in the lissom, nostalgic and poetic andante. Some of the sensational angst of the first movement carries over into the spark-flittering excitement of the cantabile finale. Like so many of his works of the American years this is a superb piece. It was commissioned by Mischa Elman (1891-1967) after he heard Martinů's First Symphony in 1943. The concerto was composed in New York the same year and premiered by Elman in Boston on 31 December 1943. 

The Serenade No. 2 for strings moves panther-like with harkings back to Haydn and Mozart. It's a touching work of concise expressiveness and while broadly neo-classical remembers that music should have a heart. It is no surprise to learn that it is a product of the Paris years and was composed in 1932. 

It is so welcome that we now have the Toccata e Due Canzoni restored to easy circulation. I still hanker for a reissue of Zdeňek Hnat's Supraphon LP (SUP 110 1619) of this work coupled with the Sinfonietta La Jolla. However this version is outstanding. Bělohlávek and Tiberghien communicate tension bordering on hysteria in the first movement. In that sense it is rather like the best performances – for example, Sejna - of the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani is there. Also a presence is lyrical liberation. Indelibly memorable is the repeated piano figure in the second movement. Despite references to neo-Baroque style the final Canzona is touching and communicatively humane - not at all perfunctory. Indeed the Toccata e Due Canzoni deserves much more attention than it has had. It is one of Martinů's strongest works. This work was commissioned by Paul Sacher (1906-99) and was premiered by him with the Basler Kammerorchester on 21 January 1947 in a  concert alongside Stravinsky's Concerto in D and Honegger's Symphony No. 4.

Harmonia Mundi's artistic values have always been high and the good long gap of silence between works shows impeccable taste. 

This is a powerful and valuable Martinů anthology and one I would commend as an introduction to the composer alongside the magnificent Warner Classics reissue (see review) of Martin Turnovsky in the Fourth Symphony.

Rob Barnett


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