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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Violin Concerto No. 1 H226 (1933) [22:42]
Violin Concerto No. 2 H293 (1943) [26:42]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for solo violin, Sz.117, BB 124 (1944) [24:12]
Franz Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša
rec. October 2018 (Concerto 1), October 2019 (Concerto 2), September 2019, Konzerthalle Bamberg (Joseph-Keilberth-Saal) and February 2020 (Bartók), Siemens Villa, Berlin
BIS BIS-2457 SACD [74:40]

There’s small cadre of violinists currently devoted to Martinů’s Second Concerto, composed in America in 1943 for Mischa Elman (one of whose performances of the work can be heard online), but of them probably the most consistent and long-established is Frank Peter Zimmerman who has now thankfully recorded it and its earlier companion concerto. By my reckoning he has been performing it for something over a decade, across the globe, with a variety of orchestras and conductors and it’s not a work he produces for special occasions, it’s part of his established repertoire. He has now settled for an alliance with one of the most sympathetic of all orchestra-conductor teams today, the Bamberg Symphony and Jakub Hrůša. If it was ever true that the Boston Symphony was the best French orchestra in the world then the Bamberg Symphony is staking its claim – a long established claim based on historical circumstances too well-known to repeat - to being the best Czech orchestra not in the Czech Republic.

What I admire about this performance is it zest, its liveliness. Rhythmic alertness is pretty much a given with this conductor and idiomatic responses a known quantity with this orchestra. The opening Andante panel is passionate whilst the fine wind tuning and centre-back percussion placing ensures an excellent orchestral perspective. The move to the Poco allegro is a matter of surging drama, the music quiveringly alive, constantly charged, incarnating Elman’s fabled tonal lustre in the solo line. Zimmermann’s commitment is similarly wholehearted, his tempo consistently bracing – the fastest I’ve heard in fact, but such is his phasal mastery it never sounds breathless – and his tonal resources captivating. Hear him widen his vibrato at 5:50 to emulate that Elman incarnation. The first movement cadenza is outstanding, the Julietta theme encoded with great but fleeting presence.

I suppose the nearest to Elman on disc is Louis Kaufman but his performance of the work is a disc for specialists because of its age and sound quality. Significantly Kaufman luxuriates over the slow movement at 8:30 of luscious personalisation. Zimmermann cuts this to seven minutes, keeping the Andante moderato indication in the forefront, allowing the lyricism to flow freely, the passage where winds shadow the solo line being especially beautiful. Both he and the conductor bring out the folkloric elements in this movement – where they’re at their apex. The finale is all aerial grace, technical excellence, and a full range of colours. The sense of momentum is paramount, greater even than in Josef Suk’s classic traversal with Václav Neumann as well as Bohuslav Matoušek’s with Christopher Hogwood. It’s certainly more pointed than Isabelle Faust’s Harmonia Mundi recording, the otherwise fine and very recommendable Thomas Albertus Irnberger on Gramola, and the less well known Lorenzo Gatto with Walter Weller and the National Orchestra of Belgium on Fuga Libera.

Though Zimmermann has performed the First Concerto far less often than the Second, I know that he and Hrůša have performed both concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic in recent years. If the Second Concerto represents the composer at his most markedly romantic, the earlier work, composed in Paris, is clearly Stravinskian in inspiration. Its genesis was troubled – Stravinsky’s ideal performer Samuel Dushkin commissioned it, gave Martinů (himself an ex-violinist) endless revisions but never played it. For many years it was laid aside, often described as incomplete until it was rediscovered in the late sixties and premiered by Suk with Georg Solti in Chicago in 1973. In many technical ways, not least some really ungrateful-sounding chording, this is a more technically taxing work than the Second concerto which tends to sit under the fingers better. Once again Zimmermann is the fastest interpreter I’ve heard though there’s less competition on disc in this work. Speed in itself is nothing without style and Zimmermann has style as well as a daunting technical arsenal. He and Hrůša relish the syncopations of the work and even when the soloist is taken high on the fingerboard, he maintains fine body of tonal. The fast tempo binds the music’s rhetoric and fantasy so that one doesn’t overbalance the other; the reading is deft, light, the double stops clean as a whistle, the dynamic range exemplary (the soloist fines down his tone beautifully, something equally beautifully caught by the recording). Lyric sweetness courses through the slow movement and there’s acerbic bowing in the finale, though it’s never overdone. Matoušek is particularly good in the finale and Suk is splendid throughout – both are up to tempo but not quite as incisive as Zimmermann - but what tends to set the newcomer apart is the zestier way he and Hrůša negotiate their way through the orchestral thickets. The bravura sign-off is ebullience itself.

As if this were not enough Zimmermann has selected a major solo work, rather than another concertante work by Martinů; Bartók’s Sonata for solo violin, probably the greatest such work in the twentieth-century repertoire. Like parts of Martinů’s First Concerto, it takes the soloist to the very brink. Here too his tempi are brisk but not unprecedentedly so. Menuhin and Ricci both took similar tempi and a contemporary player such as Augustin Hadelich is similarly charged in his approach. Zimmermann however, for all the manifold textural and expressive complications, brings his powers of concentration to bear. His accents are crisp in the Fuga, the pizzicati ring out, the folksy melody – as in the Martinů - is properly explored and projected, and he maintains the line in the Melodia where the performance is really at its most ethereal, pure and introspective. The leaping folk elements unleashed in the finale are those intermittently hinted at the Fuga; one feels the narrative has been outlined for us with clarity, responsibility and flair. This is a most convincing performance and is also the only SACD available of this combination of works.

In every way it reveals Zimmermann as a soloist of intellectual and technical eloquence, a standard bearer for all three works, and a musician to laud and to admire.

Jonathan Woolf

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