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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Complete works for violin and orchestra - Volume 4
Violin Concerto No.1 H226 (1933) [25:01]
Violin Concerto No.2 H293 (1943) [29:07]
Bohuslav Matoušek (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, May 2001 (H226), June 2004 (H293)
HYPERION CDA67674 [54:10]

Experience Classicsonline

Hyperion’s ‘Complete works for violin and orchestra’ reaches its climax with the two concertos for solo violin and orchestra back to back on one disc, volume 4 being the last in this series. I have previously had these works on a Supraphon disc of Josef Suk’s 1973 recordings, also with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vaclav Neumann, so to my ears Christopher Hogwood’s new recordings with Bohuslav Matoušek do have something of a ‘remake’ feel to them. The present recording of the Violin Concerto No.1 has also previously appeared on Supraphon. I am glad to see the unacknowledged previous release of the Suite Concertante in Volume 3 of this series corrected in this volume, the previous release of the Violin Concerto No.1 having been on the same disc: Supraphon SU36532031.

I always relish a good Martinů recording. Agreed, you have to like his style, but even if it’s not to everyone’s taste there is no escaping the vibrancy of the orchestration, and the richness and flow of the musical ideas. You can add to this the humanity of Martinů’s expression, and the sense of his desire as well as that special ability to communicate all those potent emotions. The clarity and freshness in some of the music, particularly the pastoral gorgeousness in the central Andante moderato of the Violin Concerto No.2 is some of Martinů’s best, but it’s not all easy going. There is also a great deal of intensity and percussive rhythmic writing to deal with, and his choppy writing for the solo instrument can be challenging as well: there is no escaping the whiff of Stravinsky in some passages in the opening movement of the Violin Concerto No.1.

The difficult genesis of the Violin Concerto No. 1 is reminiscent of that of the Suite Concertante, and Aleš Březina’s excellent booklet notes cover the history of both works very well indeed. Interestingly, Miloš Šafránek’s 1946 monograph on Martinů only discusses ‘The Violin Concerto’, referring to the second concerto, the first was clearly something barely recognised if known at all in the U.S. at that time. As with all of the other volumes in this series, the performances are excellent. If I have any criticism it is no more than one patch of over-wobbly flute vibrato near the beginning of the second Andante movement of the Violin Concerto, and some moments where the general woodwind intonation might have been better – coincidentally audible in that same movement. These are however extremely minor points, and you can slap me on the wrist for being overly picky when you listen for yourself. The crucial moments, such as that heartbreaking progression at 2:34 to 2:44, are wonderfully played, though what do you think of the strings’ intonation in the horribly exposed passage just before that moment? I was also alerted to another strongly ‘Stravinsky’ section 2:55 to 3:05 which for some reason I hadn’t noticed before – Hogwood seems far more attuned to this kind of detail than Neumann was. Having a listen to Josef Suk’s older analogue recording, and I was happy to hear the orchestra sounding equally clean and fresh, though the CD does have some grungy distortion on the left channel which may or may not be a transfer problem. Suk’s tone is silkier than Matoušek’s, but more squeaky and penetrating in the extreme highs. I have to admit to liking the balance and sheer sense of ensemble one-ness in the ‘golden oldie’ wind section, but as ever, I find myself wanting elements from both recordings – some amalgam of the two might provide perfection, but where do you go after having achieved perfection? Matoušek hurdles the tricky solos in the final Allegretto of the first concerto with apparent ease and certainly with great élan, and Hogwood holds the orchestra together very well indeed under those close microphones.

The Violin Concerto No.2 opens with a passionate outburst similar to the Double Concerto of 1938, and one can’t help sensing the stresses of the war years in many sections of the opening movement. It was of course Josef Suk’s award winning recording of this work which was the one to have for a long time, but Matoušek and Hogwood know exactly what they are doing, and provide all of the beefy passion and translucent tenderness we seasoned Martinů fans want from a recording. I have already mentioned the sky-blue openness of the middle movement, and the sound on this recording is one which will bring you back for more. Neither soloist nor conductor over-egg this particular pudding, and keep things simple where the composer requires. Just for a change of flavour I had a listen to the 2000 Arte Nova recording of this work with Marcello Viotti conducting the Wiener Symphoniker. This also includes the two violin and orchestra works, and has some creditable, if rather dry performances. The Andante moderato is however appallingly soggy on this one, and both of the Prague recordings are in an entirely different league. Briefly referring again to the Suk recording, and the Czech Philharmonic does have a special weight in this period which still makes me want to keep both versions. Suk’s violin sound is somehow less vibrant in this piece however – there is something in the recording which gives the impression the microphones are less than ideally placed. Personally, I am quite happy to promote this new Hyperion disc to ‘easy access’ status, which means not having to turf the cat off his bean bag while opening awkward cupboard doors to get at old CD stock.

The recordings on this disc conjure that difficult balance of detail and atmosphere very well, the musicians being captured quite closely, but with the vast acoustic of the Prague Rudolfinum adding plenty of fine resonance. The solo violin is close, but Matoušek seems fairly mobile on the podium so recedes a little now and again. If anything, Josef Suk’s violin is even closer, so can I have no real complaints with the more recent version. It’s a shame Hyperion couldn’t come up with just one more work with which to pad out this otherwise excellent release: maybe another of the mixed instrument concertos including violin? Never mind, this is a knockout recording and top class brace of performances, and without it your Martinů library will never be quite complete.

Dominy Clements 



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