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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Concerto for two violins and orchestra, H.329 (1950) [18.09]
Rhapsody–Concerto for viola and orchestra, H.337 (1952) [20.00]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, H.292 (1943) [24.22]
Sarah and Deborah Nemtanu (violins)
Magali Demess (viola)
Maria and Momo Kodama (pianos)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille/Lawrence Foster
rec. 2017, Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille
PENTATONE PTC5186658 SACD [62.52]

It makes a lot of programmatic sense to couple Martinů’s Double Concertos for violin and for piano. Adding that most refreshing and attractive of pieces, the Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola, manages to heighten the concerto theme whilst also providing a broadening of remit.

The Double Concertos followed in close succession, that for violin in 1950 and the piano concerto two years later. Deborah and Sarah Nemtanu follow in the tradition of sibling partnerships in the violin work established by the commissioners, Gerald and Wilfred Beal, who premiered it in Dallas in January 1951. In lieu of an archive recording of the Beals subsequent readings have established this as a fine work employing the composer’s best concerto grosso principles. The Nemtanu sisters play with flair and fine articulation bringing out the music’s fanciful elements and project the fast passagework clearly. In the slow movement, where the two soloists swap melodic leads, they are characterful. In the final resort, though, they are less charismatic and tonally alluring than Bohuslav Matoušek and Jennifer Koh on Hyperion (CDA67671), Lawrence Foster directs with less incision than Christopher Hogwood, and Hyperion’s sonics have greater weight than Pentatone’s. Both are SACDs.

The performance of the Double Piano Concerto is just that bit more persuasive and in many ways put me in mind of the old 1966 Supraphon LP in which husband-and-wife team Vera Lejsková and Vlastimil Lejesek, abetted by the Brno State Philharmonic under Jiří Waldhans, played it with such élan. There is vitality and dynamism in this new reading and no wallowing in the slow movement, which is taken at a bracing tempo somewhat faster than that in the older reading. The winds come over well here, in particular. Apart from an over-loud triangle in the finale, which is not quite as exuberantly taken here as in Brno, this is a persuasive and entertaining reading, the Kodama sisters playing with considerable attention to detail.

There’s much more market competition in the Rhapsody-Concerto but even here there are plenty of good things to be heard. Magali Demesse is a spirited soloist and phrases well at good tempi. But there’s more refulgent lyricism to be discovered in this work than can be found in this performance; Rysanov, with the BBC Symphony and Bělohlávek, finds it, and his richer, more expressive tone, allied to greater virtuosity, is hard to match. There is a surging inexorability about the rhythmic pulsation Rysanov and Bělohlávek find that, in the final resort, escape Demesse and Foster. And the BIS SACD sonics are again more defined than Pentatone’s.

These are more than acceptable performances – indeed they are fine on their own terms and if the programme fits they will provide satisfying listening. But on a case-by-case basis, involving picking and choosing, better performances are out there.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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