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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra (1952) [19:12]
Three Madrigals for violin and viola (1947) [16:16]
Duo No. 2 for violin and viola (1950) [15:06]
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1955) [16:05]
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin); Katya Apekisheva (piano)
rec. live, 10 November 2010, Barbican Hall, London (Concerto) and December 2012, Potton Hall, Suffolk.
BIS BIS-2030 SACD [68:00]

Martinů’s Rhapsody-Concerto is one of those cherished pieces of music which, once discovered, is likely to haunt and enhance your imagination for the rest of your life. My own favourite was for a long time a recording on the Supraphon label with Josef Suk as soloist with conductor Vaclav Neumann (Supraphon SU 3967-2 (2009); original CD release: Supraphon 110374-2) (1990). Listening back to that now as a reference I acknowledge its romantic plushness is something which might benefit from a little tightening up. Rysanov and Bělohlávek’s slightly shorter timings for the two movements do just that.

Christopher Hogwood arguably took the piece a little too far in the other more relaxed direction in their excellent Hyperion recording (review), and there are quite a few versions available including another from BIS with Nobuko Imai conducted by James DePriest. I’ve yet to come across a really dud recording of the Rhapsody-Concerto, though I never warmed to Imai’s rather heavy vibrato. Jiří Bělohlávek showed how to make the best of the difficult Barbican Hall acoustic in his terrific set of Martinů’s symphonies (see review), and with a warmly embracing string tone and spot-on rhythmic accuracy this performance is uncompromisingly good, especially considering its ‘live’ origins. There is no audience noise, and the only real extraneous sounds are Rysanov’s ecstatic exhalations at 1:58 and elsewhere in the second movement.

Maxim Rysanov is the star for this release, but the Rhapsody-Concerto is a work for exploring expressive nuance rather than virtuoso fireworks. There is perhaps a hint of Rysanov lingering a little too much in his solo lines early on in the first movement, creating little delays in the forward momentum of the music, but this is a picky and subjectively minor point and his musicianship is gloriously impeccable throughout, right through to the urgent energy in the latter part of the second movement and the moving poignancy of the final coda. His tone is equal to the generous warmth of the orchestra, floating above rather than against it. The balance is very good, blending nicely with the orchestra though perhaps a little rich for the absolute reality of the concert hall. With the 5.0 SACD surround configuration there is a perhaps mild feeling of the soloist as an entity elevated to somewhere slightly apart from the orchestra, but with Rysanov’s sensitive dynamics and phrasing there is no mismatch. Team Rysanov/Bělohlávek hit each magical moment to perfection, and both seasoned fans of this piece and initiates need have no fears in acquiring this version.

The remaining works are by no means mere fillers. The Three Madrigals are notable for their thematic inventiveness and vibrancy, and Maxim Rysanov and virtuoso violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky make a superb team in this and the Duo No. 2. Their technical ease and attention to detail is allied to subtlety of colour brings out the endless fascination of Martinů’s inventiveness with this seemingly restricted combination of instruments. There are of course many recordings of the Three Madrigals around, and finding ‘the best’ is a task I’ll leave to someone with a bigger budget. Comparison with Jitka Hosprová and violinist Veronika Jarušková on the Arco Diva label (review) shows the difference between a harder-hitting, more high-tensile approach and the apparently more laid-back Rysanov/Sitkovetsky pairing. The lads are less inclined to find theatrical drama in this piece, allowing the music its playful and poetic character and projecting its moods without creating too much of a nail-biting edge. The Duo No. 2 is every bit as demanding in the technical sense, and there are some reasons for its comparative lack of popularity suggested in the booklet notes, including a central movement apparently lacking in the “mystery and opulence” of that in the Three Madrigals. Martinů’s language here is indeed more sparing, but we are invited to look closer into the looking-glass to see where he has left his jewels. This is still classic Martinů, and these musicians explore and bring out every nugget.

The Sonata for Viola and Piano is one of Martinů’s late masterpieces, imbued at times with yearning nostalgia, and threaded throughout with enigmatic passions. There are a few recordings of this work around, and I had a listen to Sarah-Jane Bradley with pianist Anthony Hewitt on the Naxos label (review). This is a decent enough performance but the instruments are recorded too closely to make for a satisfying and at times coherent listening experience. I much prefer the space given to Maxim Rysanov and pianist Katya Apekisheva, and you would never believe they were recorded in the same Potton Hall acoustic. Rysanov’s inhalations make a fairly hefty contribution, but with such a fine performance we can easily make allowances. Catch the ecstatic end to the first movement if you need convincing of this piece’s worth, relish Apekisheva’s depth of sound in the rich piano part with its solo passages, the strange textures in the second movement swirling and climbing towards always unattainable peaks.

With that nice photo of the composer and his cat on the cover this is a very agreeable object to have around. Anyone who has yet to discover Martinů; could do far worse than make a start with the Rhapsody-Concerto, but this recording has plenty to offer even the longest-term connoisseurs of this uniquely fine composer.

Dominy Clements


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