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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Sextet (1932) [15:48]
Three Madrigals for violin and viola (1947) [16:33]
Ervin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Sextet (1924) [23:51]
The Raphael Ensemble
rec. July 1991, undisclosed location

Experience Classicsonline

Two Czech sextets. Of the two here it’s actually the Schulhoff that has begun to eclipse Martinů’s in popularity. Partly of course this may reflect Schulhoff’s greater prominence on disc but it does also indicate that the earlier work – Schulhoff wrote it in 1924 – has a profusion of incident and eclectic writing.

Martinů’s work is a charming and harmonically rich affair, offering coloured variety in the first movement. There are witty dance themes in the second as well as some drunken lurches. The finale is vital, vibrant with plenty of warmth and clarity. At a quarter of an hour or so in length it can hardly be said to outstay its welcome – a lively, pleasurable and largely untroubled affair. The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble has recorded it on all-Czech disc [Chandos CHAN8771]; better still is an all-Martinů disc on Praga PRD350040. Don’t be tempted by Ensemble Villa Musica’s all-Martinů disc on MDG 3041439, which contains the Sextet – it’s unidiomatically played.

Schulhoff’s Sextet is a fascinatingly eclectic affair. Its first movement has Schoenbergian moments whilst the second is a pretty fervid Andante. There’s a folkloric scherzo, technically demanding, and flecks of late Impressionism in the finale. If this makes it sound like an indigestible porridge then the wonder is that it isn’t. I enjoyed The Raphael Ensemble’s performance but it strikes a very different kind of stance to that of the augmented Kocian Quartet on Supraphon SU1121672131 – they’ve also recorded it for Praga. The Helios has the warmer sound, though the more brittle Supraphon acoustic doesn’t act against the music. The Kocian screws up tension in the first movement more successfully and its middle section winds down like a run down motor very much more graphically. The English ensemble are slower than the Czechs – which lends their slow movement a nice, insinuating feel, though the Kocians sounds more modern in the scherzo. The Raphaels bring overt anguish to the opening statements of the finale whilst the Kocian tends to stress rather more the laconic impressionism rather than the expressionist angst that The Raphael Ensemble locates.

Martinů’s Three Madrigals sees Hyperion, in its Helios reissue guise, in competition, inter alia, with itself. The Dartington Ensemble recorded them - but their programme was discrete. Anthony Marwood and Sally Beamish make a good showing here. The acoustic is more generous than that for the classic Jiři Novák and Milan Škampa Supraphon though the tones, individually and collectively, of the English duo are wirier than the Czechs. No one can rival that august Czech pairing for sheer finesse, heft and atmosphere. 

This enjoyable disc doesn’t quite displace the front-runners but offers warmly aerated performances, persuasively realised.

Jonathan Woolf





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