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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Violin Concerto No. 1 H226 (1933) [23:48]
Violin Concerto No. 2 H293 (1943) [27:20]
Thomas Albertus Irnberger (violin), Janáček Philharmonie Ostrava / Heiko Mathias Förster
rec. 2016/2018, Concert Hall of the City of Ostrava Cultural Centre, Ostrava, Czech Republic.
GRAMOLA 99178 [51:10]

Martinů’s First Violin Concerto was written in 1931 during the composer’s fruitful Paris period. Martinů was a violinist himself, but it wasn’t until the virtuoso performer Samuel Dushkin - today remembered for his association with Igor Stravinsky - commissioned the work. Composed with Martinů’s typical swiftness but subject to requests for changes by Dushkin and ultimately languishing unperformed for decades, this is a magnificent work filled with the composer’s signature harmonic sweet and sour richness, and with the energetic rhythmic impulse of the outer movements characteristic of his sometimes jazz-tinted Paris period in particular. The central Andante has a lyrical, pastoral charm that speaks of the carefree mood between the wars, with some superb moments of subtle and skilled orchestration thrown in for good measure.

The Second Violin Concerto from 1943 came as Martinů’s name was becoming established in America through symphonic commissions from Serge Koussevitzky. The request for this second concerto came from Mischa Elman after the violinist had heard a performance of Martinů’s First Symphony. Written with Elman’s lyrical style in mind, this concerto has some deeply romantic passages, though Martinů’s typically nervy tensions are never far away. There is also a darker side to the music which can only be associated with concerns about the war, and Martinů’s uncertain situation in his newly adopted homeland. The decade and more between the two concertos sees a greater level of focus and sophistication in the second, a more reflective attitude and an appreciation of the sheer beauty in life and its fragility as well as the sparkling essence of life itself heard in the first concerto, some of which comes through in little asides during the the urgent momentum of the second concerto’s last movement.

This is an excellent SACD recording from the Gramola label, with Thomas Albertus Irnberger a skilled advocate for Martinů’s often tricky writing for the soloist, and the Janáček Philharmonie Ostrava sounding on top form. There is strong competition from the Hyperion label with violinist Bohuslav Matoušek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christopher Hogwood (review), though with such superb sound and vibrant playing my inclination leans ever more towards this new version. I would however be happy to stick with either if washed up on my desert island. The Supraphon label has its own ‘classic’ recording with Josef Suk and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vaclav Neumann re-released in 2009 with the Rhapsody Concerto as an extra temptation. No Martinů fan would want to be without this, but the Gramola certainly has the edge when it comes to sound balance and orchestral detail. We are by no means spoilt for choice when it comes to having both of these excellent concertos on a single disc, so this is a high-quality and welcome addition to the catalogues.

Dominy Clements

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