Martinů and Bartók from BIS

A wonderful disc. The repertoire choices could hardly be bettered ...

Martinů and Bartók from BIS

The music of Bohuslav Martinů still, for some unaccountable reason, has not quite received the appreciation it so deserves. He wrote 15 operas  - how many have you heard? I can only count a scant handful that I've seen live, although Julietta has appeared, somehow, twice (once in a full staging sung in English at English National Opera in 2012 conducted by Edward Gardner, the other in a semi-staged performance at the Barbican  in 2009 with the BBC forces conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek and starring Magdalena Kožená, sung in French). The BBC and the much-missed Bĕlohlávek did much in London to attempt to bring Martinů's orchestral music to the public's attention. Good to see this current release, then, offering  Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2.

A Czech composer, Martinů (born 1890) left his homeland for Paris in 1923 after a period of study with Josef Suk; while in France, there was no doubting the influence of French music on his output. He remained in Paris until 1940; from 1841-53, he was in the States, a country that supported him well. He finally left the USA and returned to France (for Nice) in 1953; he died in Switzerland in 1959.

The First Concerto was composed in Paris; it's not hard to hear the influence of Stravinsky. It was commissioned by Samuel Dushkin (who also enjoyed a close relationship wtih Stravinsky) although it was never played by him. A virtuosic piece, it meets its equal in the combination of Zimmermann and Jakub Hrůša in a performance of deft delight. Here's the first movement:

Violin Concerto No. 1 (i)

The second movement exudes a lovely, piquant sweetness:

Violin Concerto No. 1 (ii)

No stranger to this concerto, you can also hear a full performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, again with Hrůša, a most sympathetic musical partner (as Hrůša's performances in the UK with the Philharmonia have proved):

Violin Concerto 1, complete with BPO

The Second Violin Concerto opens with an orcherstral cry: late-Romantic, heart-on-sleeve emotions are the order of the day here:

Violin Concerto No. 2 (i)

The slow movement is a breath of fresh air:

Violin Concerto No. 2 (ii)

The whirlwind finale is remarkable, both in conception and in this performance. One can find the essence of French lightness, but with the composer's own signature. This is a magnificent performance; in fact it's probably fair to say that these two performances take pride of place in the catalogue now.

Here's a rather nice promo video from BIS regarding Zimmermann's performance of Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin:

This is a gritty performance of another piece written in America (in 1944). A rigorous streak runs through Bartók's invention (the first two movements are a Tempo di ciaccona followed by a Fuga marked "risoluto"). Yet that doesn't mean the music is inhumane, and Zimmermann pinpoints the humanity behind this - much as one might in Bach. The work was actually written in 1943/44 for Yehudi Menuhin, who commissioned it in November 1943. It is notoriously difficult  technically (particularly the fugue) and yet contains a movement of the utmost expressivity, the "Melodia," where Zimmermann is beautifully song-like and sweet-toned:

Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin, Melodia

... all this, before the Presto finale sweeps you off your feet in giddy passages alternating with a happy, Hungarian-flavoured tune.

A wonderful disc. The repertoire choices could hardly be bettered (so much better to have that meaty, substantial Bartók rather than a token filler); the recording is fabulous.