Feature Review – Martinů: The Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra [Matoušek … Hogwood … Hyperion]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Volume 1


Concerto for flute, violin and orchestra, H252

Duo concertante for two violins and orchestra, H264

Concerto in D for two violins and orchestra, H329

Bohuslav Matoušek (violin), Janne Thomsen (flute), Régis Pasquier & Jennifer Koh (violins)

HYPERION CDA67671 [55 minutes]

Volume 2


Concerto da camera, H285

Concerto for violin, piano and orchestra, H342

Czech Rhapsody, H307a

Bohuslav Matoušek (violin), Karel Košárek (piano)

HYPERION CDA67672 [65 minutes]

Volume 3


Suite concertante for violin and orchestra, H276

Suite concertante for violin and orchestra, H276a

Rhapsody-concerto for viola and orchestra, H337

Bohuslav Matoušek (violin & viola)

HYPERION CDA67673 [68 minutes]

Volume 4


Violin Concerto No.1, H226

Violin Concerto No.2, H293

Bohuslav Matoušek (violin)

HYPERION CDA67674 [54 minutes]

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Christopher Hogwood

Recorded in Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague between May 2001 and December 2005

For its exploration of Bohuslav Martinů’s complete music for violin and orchestra (the release completed in September 2008), the first of its kind, Hyperion turns to an established specialist of the composer, from whom we have heard all too little on disc over the last ten years.

Christopher Hogwood (no relation, I should stress!) is ideally suited to the composer’s music, particularly when considering the influence Baroque compositional techniques hold on its forward motion. He brings these to life particularly in the smaller-scale works for chamber orchestra, with their bustling ritornelli and chattering, toccata-like figurations.

There is of course so much more to Martinů’s music, and throughout these works we find him a keen, sometimes bittersweet melodist, with Hogwood emphasising the open, often questioning nature of the composer’s harmonic language.

In partnership, Bohuslav Matoušek proves a most capable violinist, technically in command of the most demanding writing, with his presence almost constantly required either as principal melody or accompaniment. A sweetly produced higher register tone lends a luminous quality particularly to Martinů’s slower music, while in the grittier, propulsive fast movements he is not found wanting either.

These (separately available) discs serve a two-fold purpose – to introduce even seasoned Martinů fans to unfamiliar music, and, where previous recordings already exist, to offer collection front-runners. With the participation of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra the project acquires greater authenticity.

The results are never less than pleasurable, and are often revelatory. Into the latter category falls the Concerto for violin, piano and orchestra from Volume 2. During this substantial piece, a cousin of the famous Concerto for double string orchestra, piano and timpani, Hogwood presents the composer as something of a harmonic virtuoso, capable of moving between distant keys at speed without compromising the flow of the piece. Starting with that familiar, motoric rhythm that characterises Martinů’s faster movements for these forces, the violins keep the engine ticking over as the lightly syncopated theme unfolds. This perpetual motion suddenly shifts to an unrelated key, at which point the beautiful tone of Matoušek’s violin sings on, its upper register line extending the melodic reach.

The slow movement provides further examples of the composer’s highly individual treatment of harmony, achieving that unusual balance of consonance and dissonance. Again the last movement’s hustle and bustle is checked with a deliberate cadence, upon which the soloists enter, the momentum unharmed. The real drama, however, is saved for just over three minutes in, where Hogwood maximises the impact of a big, gruff chord that breaks up a potentially affirming unison.

The Concerto da camera with which this disc begins is better known, and through its powerful slow movement Hogwood and Matoušek generate real tension and strife as the climax approaches, so that the subsequent arrival in C major (at 4’50”) is less a release, more an uneasy calm. With its instrumentation this wartime work, premiered in 1942 by Gertrud Flügel, Paul Sacher and the Basel Chamber Orchestra, may suffer publicly from comparison to its better known cousin, though in this performance is revealed as a deliciously scored piece of music that, while relatively introverted, speaks strongly through its dissonance, to which Matoušek and Hogwood are again alive.

Completing the second volume of works is the first recording of the orchestral version of the Czech Rhapsody, a work dedicated to but never performed by Fritz Kreisler. Left unfinished in its orchestral form, it was completed by Jiří Teml and violinist Ivan Straus, and is a lively, characterful movement.

The first disc of the series begins with a work close in manner to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, the previously unrecorded Concerto for flute, violin and orchestra. Thematically distinctive, the recording here has plenty of bounce in a dance-like first movement, with lyrical flourishes from Janne Thomsen’s flute. The soloists intertwine throughout a haunting slow movement, with Matoušek ending on a beautifully sustained high.

The first Duo Concertante arrives all too quickly, with barely a pause between works, though quickly charms with its alternation of lyricism and athleticism. These works are not numbered, as they differ in form considerably – the first, with Régis Pasquier taking the second violin part, is modelled on a concerto grosso, whereas the second, with a vibrant contribution from Jennifer Koh, stays true to the 18th-century concerto model. Both are little known but have much to offer melodically, and in the first work Hogwood produces a fully successful and stylish rallentando, just less than three minutes into the finale.

The two violin concertos ‘proper’ occupy the fourth and final volume. It is only here, in older recordings, that the sound is less than ideal, the first concerto given a somewhat dry acoustic. This fails to quell the enjoyment gained from the music-making, however, in a reading that expands tempos somewhat when compared with Josef Suk’s pioneering Supraphon version. The elongated yet emotive Andante works well, while in the Second Concerto the Andante first movement receives the same treatment.

Suk fills out his disc with the Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra, and in the third instalment of Hyperion’s series Matoušek also switches to the viola, finding a surprisingly bright tone, with the Czech Philharmonic beautifully poised and immaculately detailed in its accompaniment. This is once again a reading of bittersweet lyrical charm, and is clearly recorded too.

This third disc also offers the real rarities of the series, with two versions of a work Martinů struggled manfully to complete. The booklet notes from Ales Brezina provide an interesting and informative background, though even here the reason for the first version’s eventual neglect by Samuel Dushkin is not known. It is hard to believe it would have been on grounds of musical quality, even though this is among Martinů’s more uneven works. Commissioning a second version, the violinist was given a wholly different work, and it proves difficult to spot many common denominators between them – save for their energy and range of colour. This is secured through a surprisingly full-bodied orchestration, with bright sounds but also real depth as fully captured by the engineers.

This is therefore a hugely enlightening series reinforcing Martinů’s standing as a prolific yet original composer. If restricted to one volume I would recommend the second, but each of these four discs holds considerable rewards, the team of Matoušek and Hogwood carrying all before them.

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