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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)
Mari and Momo Kodama (pianos)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille/Lawrence Foster
rec. 2017, Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille
PENTATONE PTC5186658 SACD [62.52]

There is now a considerable and increasing number of Martinů recordings in the catalogue although this interest hasn’t been matched by actual performances of his legacy of over four-hundred works, which is certainly no reflection of their quality. Aleš Březina from the Martinů Institute reminds me that, “at the end of the 1940s Martinů was definitely the most performed living contemporary composer in the USA”. Attracted by the concertante form, Martinů by my reckoning wrote twenty-nine such works including ten for various combinations of instruments. For this recording Pentatone has selected from his list of concertante works three scores: the Concerto for two pianos, the Concerto for two violins and the Rhapsody–Concerto for viola. A nine-year period separates the three works all of which were composed in the USA.

Evidently in 1942 Martinů was in London for the world premičre of Bartók’s Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra which may have inspired him to write his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra. Composed in 1943, the three-movement score is a product of Martinů’s years of exile in the USA. Angular rhythms dominate the flamboyant, rather dazzling opening movement, allegro non troppo, and a section towards the conclusion might easily depict a sword-fight from an Errol Flynn, Hollywood swashbuckler. Thickly reflective, with an uneasy calm the adagio is followed by a high spirited allegro which feels as if the pianos are mischievously sparring. Sisters Mari and Momo Kodama are on terrific form and their playing throughout feels as if they are listening to each other as if in a chamber music recital. Their combined purpose and style has a consistent quality and this concerto could hardly receive a better performance.

Martinů had fled Paris just prior to the Nazi occupation, finally arriving in America in 1941 where he stayed until 1953. At the time of writing his Concerto for two violins in 1950, Martinů was settled in New York. The score was a commission from the teenage twins Gerald and Wilfred Beal who introduced the score in Dallas in 1951. Designed in a neoclassical style, immediately noticeable for its vitality and spirit there is an abundance of rapid passage work for the soloists. The concluding Presto, taken at a hell for leather pace, is striking. This satisfying and well-focused performance from sisters Sarah and Deborah Nemtanu has exceptional musical energy together with adept technical prowess.
Written in 1952 in New York, with the Rhapsody–Concerto for viola and orchestra Martinů embarked on the development of a rhapsodic style in a neo–Romantic idiom. It was the commissioner of the score, soloist Jascha Veissi who gave the premiere in 1953 at Cleveland with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Undemanding and agreeable, the writing concentrates on warm lyricism for the viola. In particular the second movement, molto-adagio, could surely be a ‘love’ passage from a Korngold movie score. Playing a rich toned viola Magali Demess revels in the heartfelt writing with a warmly expressive performance which retains clear focus throughout, confidently handling the required virtuosity.

Not an orchestra that I encounter too often, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille under the experienced Lawrence Foster is on splendid form, playing with tight ensemble, verve and colour. Recorded at Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille the sound quality from this hybrid SACD played on my standard player is adequately clear and balanced. Jörg Urbach’s liner notes provided all the information I required and are well written too.

This album makes a splendidly strong case for some captivating twentieth-century concerto repertoire by Martinů.

Michael Cookson



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