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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Suites from Špalíček (1931-2, revised 1937, 1940)
Suite No. 1 H214A [22:29]
Suite No. 2 H214B [22:24]
Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra H337 (1952) [19:41]
Mikhail Zemtsov (viola)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 30 September – 3 October 2014 (Suites from Špalíček); 2-3 July 2015 (Rhapsody-Concerto), Estonian Concert Hall, Tallinn
CHANDOS CHAN10885 [64:55]

I believe the late Charles Mackerras said that now the fight for Janáček had been won it was time to make the case for Martinů. He has still not quite made it to the consciousness of the ordinary music-lover, though Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s tenure of the BBC Symphony Orchestra did do a great deal for him in the UK. However, most of Martinů’s large output has been recorded and I find him always entertaining and delightful, occasionally rather more grave but still a good companion. To my mind he is the twentieth century Haydn: a composer who always leaves you feeling cheerful.

Here we have suites from his ballet Špalíček. The title means something like chapbook, a cheaply produced small square book sold by travelling salesmen and containing fairy tales and the like. This ballet dramatizes several fairy tales, of which the best known are Puss in Boots and Cinderella. The others are Czech and they are all given a Czech flavour. This work was written in 1931-2 and marks the threshold of Martinů’s maturity, when he learned to integrate his Czech national idiom into the French one he had learned in Paris, where he had studied under Roussel and continued to live until the war. He had already written several ballets before this, and he must also have heard and seen Prokofiev’s 1920s ballets such as Chout and Le fils prodigue. However, another important influence was Stravinsky’s Les Noces, both for its music and for the fact that it required a chorus and soloists as well as an orchestra. The original version of Martinů’s ballet does the same.

Here, however, we have the two suites which Miloš Řiha made, with the composer’s approval, from the original score. Řiha dropped the soloists and chorus and cut the work to about half its original length. We have a series of lively and very danceable numbers in an idiom close to that of Prokofiev of the time. Like Prokofiev he likes pungent woodwind writing and incorporates a piano into his orchestra. There are relatively few fingerprints of the mature Martinů and he sometimes, as in the lovely number for Cinderella’s ball, harks back to Tchaikovsky, and incidentally shows he can write a luscious tune when he chooses. Being critical I would say that it is not quite up to the level of the best Prokofiev, but that is saying a lot, and it is an enjoyable work which grows on you.

I would have expected a coupling of another of Martinů’s ballets or even The Spectre’s Bride, which was originally part of Špalíček but cut from it because of length. However, that would have required a chorus, which would surely not have been a problem since Estonia is such a land for choirs. Instead, we have the Rhapsody-Concerto for viola. This is a much later work, dating from 1953, by which time Martinů was reconciled to permanent exile in the USA. This is in two movements, the first gentler and the second more lively, a structure within hailing distance of the Berg violin concerto. The idiom is that of the mature Martinů, and old hands will recognize the figure from his opera Julietta which he became so fond of in his later works. Mikhail Zemtsov is an accomplished soloist.

Neeme Järvi has a good track record with this composer. His set of the complete symphonies, originally on BIS (review review), now also on Brilliant Classics (review), was a standard recommendation until Bĕlohlávek’s sets came along. The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is a seasoned band which has recorded a good deal under Neeme Järvi’s son Paavo. They are a French-style orchestra, or at least they seem so here, with piquant wind instruments and an emphasis on clarity rather than blend. They are recorded in what sounds like a medium-sized rather than a large concert hall and the recording is admirably clear, not as reverberant as when Chandos is working at home. Zemtsov is balanced rather forward in the Rhapsody-Concerto. The booklet gives the background to Špalíček.

The only competition for Špalíček is the complete recording under František Jílek. This dates from 1988 but still sounds good. It takes a disc and a half and in its latest issue is coupled with The Spectre’s Bride and two other works (Supraphon SU39252). There are several other recordings of the Rhapsody-Concerto, including a classic one from Josef Suk with Vaclav Neumann which dates from 1987 (Supraphon 110374-2). Several more recent entries include one in the late Christopher Hogwood’s series of Martinů violin concertos for Hyperion where it is slipped into the third volume, played by Bohuslav Matoušek (review). Both these excellent players are primarily violinists whereas Zemtsov is a viola specialist and I fancy I can hear his enjoyment of the richer sound of the lower instrument. As performances they all seem fine and choice can depend on whether to take the plunge with this coupling or to hold out for the complete Špalíček and a separate version of the Rhapsody-Concerto. I hope Neeme Järvi continues to work with this fine orchestra and gives us more Martinů and more Estonian composers. Can we have a complete version of Veljo Tormis’ opera Luigeland?
Stephen Barber



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