Bohemian Spring Series – 21st March

Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani
Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra
Symphony No. 7 in D minor

Paul Silverthorne (viola)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 March, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A further instalment in this welcome series, and the only incidence of Martinu’s orchestral music. A pity none of the symphonies could be included – No. 3, in particular, urgently needs revival – but the two works chosen complement each other perfectly as representative of the composer’s maturity.

The Double Concerto (1938) has always been recognised as among Martinu’s most potent statements. Inspired by events both cultural – German annexation of Czechoslovakia took place during its composition – and personal – the composer’s doomed affair with a consumptive student – the work has knife-edge intensity unique in his output. Yet this is a work that, for all its expressive power, loses immediacy when heard in a concert- hall acoustic. So the searing antiphonal exchanges between string groupings in the opening Allegro poco were blunted by the Barbican Hall’s resonance (an irony in itself), while the densely contrapuntal exchanges in the closing Allegro similarly lacked definition. A pity, as Davis’s performance was a fine one – unsparing in its emotional onslaught which, in the central Largo and drained conclusion of the finale, underlines the inherent tragedy of the inter-war period. Although the two soloists could have been balanced more forwardly, the superb timpani-playing projected with the incisiveness necessary in this extraordinary piece – much more than a document of its time.

The Rhapsody-Concerto (1952) offers complete contrast. An essentially ruminative score, it occupies a position ’on the cusp’ between the new (as opposed to ’neo’) classicism of Martinu’s American years, and the intuitive freedom found in his previous seven years of work back in Europe. Indeed, the rhythmically free, chorale-like melodic writing would open up magnificently in the Sixth Symphony, and remain central in the works to come. Formally, content determines form to a considerable degree, the two movements appearing as complementary takes on the same material rather than the linear progression favoured in Martinu’s previous concertos. If the easy-going discourse, subtly tinged with stoical unease, lacks the fervency of later works, this was no fault of Paul Silverthorne, whose calm authority gave us the measure of the music’s understatement.

To follow these pieces with Dvorák’s most ’classical’ symphony was shrewd planning – Colin Davis’s? His Concertgebouw recording of the work remains among the finest after almost 25 years, and the intensity he invested in the present account showed that his conviction has not lessened over time. True, there were passing details that might prove distracting on repetition: notably a tendency to ’nudge’ the rhythmic profile of salient motifs, such as that which dominates the finale, which borders on over-emphasis. Against this must be weighed the powerful momentum generated across the opening Allegro maestoso, and the fusing of scherzo and trio into a tautly-sustained unity. The slow movement was, even so, the highlight of this performance, combining songfulness and pathos in a musical transcendence of the crisis of conscience which, as Jan Smaczny pointed out (in his programme note), had beset Dvorák as a Czech composer excelling in a medium central to the Austro-German tradition. And, as the finale’s coda makes plain, this is not a symphony intent on tragedy or triumph; rather a formal and emotional settling of account in the fatalistic terms of classical drama: a double recognition which Davis brought out with absolute conclusiveness.

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