'Martinu was prolific in every field, but perhaps no more so than in the concerto, where he explored a variety of forms and instrumental combinations … Bohuslav Matoušek plays all three works here with energy and an imaginative range of tonal colour, while the accompaniments from Christopher Hogwood and the Czech orchestra are equally resourceful' (Daily Telegraph)
'In the Rhapsody-Concerto Matoušek shows himself as adept a viola-player as he is a violinist, sweeter-toned than Telecky and a match for Imai and Bukac … This third volume in Hyperion's invaluable series is as desirable as its predecessors: highly recommended' (Gramophone)
'The performance of the two-movement Rhapsody-Concerto is exemplary … Matoushek exchanges violin for viola and luxuriates in the radiant lyricism of Martinu's last period. Hogwood shapes the structures with magnificent insight and, with the orchetsra, provides attentive accompaniment throughout' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Bohuslav Matoushek, as he has shown in the previous two volumes in his series, is a master interpreter of Martinu's music, but his wonderfully intense playing of the Rhapsody reveals him as a superb viola player as well … Magnificently recorded, with excellent documentation. Buy it' (The Dominion Post, New Zealand)
Prelude: Allegro moderato [3'28]
Meditation: Largo [5'52]
Finale: Allegro vivo [7'59]
Aria: Andantino [7'53]
Rondo: Poco allegro [6'14]
This is the third volume in Hyperion’s set of the complete works for violin and orchestra by Martinu, featuring the wonderful Bohuslav Matoušek with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Hogwood. Many first recordings are included in the series, as well as works totally unperformed outside the Czech Republic. The two very different versions of Martinu’s Suite concertante are fascinating rarities. The only well-known work on this disc is the Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra: a lyrical, virtuosic piece written for Jascha Viessi and one of the most performed viola concertos of the twentieth century.
The programme notes by Aleš Bresina are meticulously researched and provide a comprehensive background to the intriguing genesis and performance history of these works.
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It was the Polish-born American violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891–1976) who in 1938 commissioned his friend Bohuslav Martinu to compose a suite for violin and orchestra. Despite the fact that Martinu’s Violin Concerto No 1, H226, which he wrote for Dushkin in 1932–3, had not yet been performed in 1938, the composer did not hesitate to begin work on the project, and started to write a group of short virtuoso dances inspired by the Czech folk music. (He originally intended to call the work ‘Czech Dances for violin and orchestra’, before eventually settling on the title Suite concertante.)
The Suite concertante, first version, H276, is one of the few works in Martinu’s large output (over 400 compositions) where the composer found creation complicated and difficult. In November 1938 he wrote to Vítezslava Kaprálová, his composition student: ‘I feel very lonely and my work is not moving forward. Three dances were already finished, but today I threw it all away and will start anew.’ He finished the piano draft in December 1938 and the full score over the following two months (the Prelude on 8 February 1939, Meditation on 15 January, Intermezzo on 18 January, and the two remaining undated movements, Scherzo caprice and Finale, no later than the middle of February). In January Dushkin left Europe to return to New York and it seems that Miloš Šafránek, an important Czech diplomat in Paris and a good friend and supporter of Martinu, took parts of the score across the Atlantic to deliver them to the violinist. In an undated letter (most probably from February 1939) the composer wrote to Šafránek, who was going to emigrate to the USA: ‘Please tell me the exact date you are going to leave; I would like to give you the autograph of the last movement, if I manage to finish it by Wednesday. What time are you departing? Would I find you at home? […] I would like to send one finished movement to Dushkin, you would introduce yourself to him very well if you could take it to him.’
The impending war made any performance in France impossible. Typically, if a work of Martinu’s was not performed immediately after its completion, it remained unperformed for a long time. The first version of the Suite concertante holds the record among these unfortunate works: it did not receive its first orchestral performance for exactly fifty years. This small jewel remained unperformed for many decades primarily because several scholars presumed that neither the composer nor the violinist was satisfied with the piece. Some relevant documents, especially two letters recently found at the Library of Congress in Washington, call this view into question and shed new light on the early history of this piece. In a letter dated 22 February 1939 Louise Dushkin, the violinist’s wife, approached the conductor Serge Koussevitzky with an offer:
Dear Mr. Koussevitzky: Sam wanted to write you himself, but he has just come home from a western tour and is abed with the grippe. He is very excited about a new ‘Suite de Concert’ for violin and orchestra by Bohuslav Martinu. The orchestration was not yet finished when we left Europe, but we have now received the complete score. It is in five movements: Prélude, Meditation, Scherzo-caprice, Intermezzo, Finale, and will take about twenty minutes to play. Sam considers this Suite exceptionally ‘réussi’, in fact a most brilliant and precious addition to the violin and orchestra literature. He would of course be very happy if he could play it with you.
Although it seemed a good idea to approach Koussevitzky, who was great supporter of contemporary music and had premiered two orchestral works by Martinu in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to try and secure a performance of this work, the famous conductor did not programme the piece with Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it seems did not even reply to the letter (at least there is no evidence of a reply in the Koussevitzky collection at the Library of Congress). A year later Martinu immigrated in adventurous circumstances to the USA; Dushkin was among the few people to welcome him after his arrival in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 31 March 1941, and they soon renewed their collaboration.
By that time Samuel Dushkin’s agent, Paul H Stoss, had written another letter to Koussevitzky, dated 8 February 1941:
Dear Dr. Koussevitzky: Knowing of your interest in presenting first performances of outstanding works, I would like to call your attention to an availability of unusual interest for next season. The distinguished American violinist Samuel Dushkin, who introduced to the American public such outstanding contributions as the Stravinsky Concerto and Ravel’s Tzigane, now has exclusive rights to two more outstanding works, which should be of definite interest to you and your public. These works are: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Rodolfo Halffter, Spanish composer (20 minutes), Suite for Violin and Orchestra by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (18 minutes). Mr. Dushkin will be most happy to appear as soloist with your orchestra next season in the performance of either of these new compositions, or perhaps in a standard concerto.
Nevertheless, the possibility of an orchestral performance of the Suite with Koussevitzky remained unfulfilled. The first (and for nearly five decades the only) performance of the work took place in a piano reduction in the Town Hall in New York on 7 April 1943 with Samuel Dushkin accompanied by Erich Itor Kahn. According to the New York Times review from the following day, ‘the composer bowed from a box’. The New York Sun review includes an interesting passage on the creation of the work based on information in the programme notes. It says: ‘The Martinu Suite written especially for Mr. Dushkin was begun in Paris five years ago. However, it was not finished until last year, when Martinu was a resident of New York. Its movements include a toccata, elegie, caprice and rhapsodie.’ It is questionable whether the Intermezzo was in fact not performed or simply omitted by the reviewer in error; but more interesting is the change of title of three of the movements. In fact these alternative names are more descriptive than those sanctioned by the manuscript—Toccata is a more appropriate title for the fast and motoric first movement than Prelude, and Rhapsody describes the final movement more appositely than Finale.
The title of the second movement, the only one that does not show any influence of Dushkin’s violin technique, is a special case. The heading Elegy alludes to a strong personal aspect that is missing in the title Meditation. While composing this movement Martinu went through the most difficult period of his love for Vítezslava Kaprálová. On 19 December 1938 he went so far as to suggest marriage, which would have meant a divorce from his wife Charlotte. But the more Martinu pushed her, the less sure Kaprálová felt about the future with a man twice her age. Martinu was desperate. On 14 January 1939 Kaprálová wrote to her parents, ‘Martinu has lost eight kilogrammes, he looks bad’. And five days later she wrote to her lover Rudolf Kopec about her recent meeting with Martinu. According to the letter the composer told her: ‘My little girl, my Písnicka [little song], I settled my account with my life. I gave myself to you in such a complete way that in reality I transformed myself into you and now I am only a shell, an empty case.’ It is this biographical context that makes the Elegy the central piece of the entire Suite. It also explains the extensive use of the plagal cadence known as the ‘Juliette chord’. Although Martinu’s opera Juliette was written before he met Kaprálová, he later identified her with the eponymous female role of his opera, the dreamlike femme fatale for all male characters.
After such a private movement the following Intermezzo, with its touch of Fritz Kreisler-like light style as well as allusions to the sounds of birds, comes as something of a surprise. In the Finale Martinu quotes a famous Czech folk song, ‘Hop hej, cibulári jedou’ (‘Hop hey, onion marketeers are coming’).
It is not clear who wrote the piano reduction of the Suite concertante that was performed at the Town Hall. In the literature on Martinu this is credited to the composer and pianist Erich Itor Kahn. However, the recently catalogued Kahn collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts does not confirm this hypothesis. Kahn left no score, and his otherwise very detailed diaries makes no mention of such a time-consuming activity. Moreover it is unlikely that in 1942 or early 1943 Martinu would have had the money to hire someone to undertake this job. According to Harry Halbreich Martinu revised the Violin Concerto No 1 in New York by the end of 1941. It is possible that this supposed revision was in fact the work on a piano reduction of his Suite.
Although most of the reviews were very favourable, the first version of the Suite concertante disappeared from Dushkin’s repertoire. It is not clear why Dushkin stopped performing the piece, nor why he asked the composer for a completely different version of the work. The first version was never published. In 1996 Harry Halbreich, the owner of the autograph of four movements of the Suite concertante’s first version, gave a copy of it to the Bohuslav Martinu Institute in Prague. He expressed his wish to have it performed. However, the manuscript was incomplete since the middle movement, Scherzo caprice, was missing. According to Halbreich’s Martinu catalogue from 1968 this was in the Moldenhauer archives in Spokane, USA. These private archives were donated to the Library of Congress only in 1987, and made accessible even later, but the Scherzo caprice was not among the documents. With the valuable help of Judith Fiehler of the Library of Congress and Don L Roberts from Northwestern University in Illinois, and after much further research, I found a complete draft of the Scherzo caprice, which contains so many detailed remarks concerning the instrumentation that it would certainly be possible to elaborate a full orchestral version out of it. However, since we have evidence—from the above-cited letter by Louise Dushkin—that Martinu completed a full orchestral version of this movement, an alternative orchestration of this draft does not seem appropriate. Therefore this first recording of the Suite concertante’s first version contains only four of the work’s five movements.
The premiere performance of Suite concertante’s orchestral version took place on 25 May 2000 at the Prague Spring Festival. Bohuslav Matoušek performed the solo violin part with the Pardubice Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. Thanks to this recording as well as to the planned printed edition this valuable composition will hopefully be included in the canon of twentieth-century violin repertoire.
The Suite concertante, second version, H276A, like the first version dedicated to Samuel Dushkin, is so radically different from its predecessor that it justifies its status as a separate work, rather than merely as a revision. Its four movements were probably written between November 1943 and February 1944. For the first movement Martinu used the material from the Prelude of the first version, but altered it considerably. The basic tempo of Allegro is tempered by a cautionary poco moderato, probably to warn the soloist not to focus solely on technical brilliance but also on the beauty of tone required for an interpretation of the spicy, dissonant melody line. The second movement, with its title Aria, recalls Stravinsky’s famous Violin Concerto. With this title Martinu refers not only to the instrumental arias of late Baroque music but also to the singable nature of Czech and Moravian folk music. After a large orchestral introduction the solo violin enters with an arched melody, which favours consonant intervals. The remaining two movements are in a fast tempo. The Scherzo, with the tempo indication Allegretto scherzando, is a refined waltz full of chromatic ornaments for the solo violin. The thematic and textural similarity of the opening of the Rondo with the final movement of Martinu’s Violin Concerto No 1 is a singular exception in the large output of this composer. Martinu probably considered the never-performed Concerto to have no future possibility of performance and so he returned to make use of this unusual idea in its finale. However, it is also possible that the similarity is explained by the fact that it addresses the same compositional ‘problem’—the finale of a violin concerto—in a work composed for the same musician, whose violin technique had likewise inspired Igor Stravinsky.
Dushkin premiered the second version of the Suite concertante on 28 December 1945 in St Louis, Missouri, with Vladimir Golschmann and the St Louis Orchestra. Although all the reviews in the local newspapers were positive and the Suite concertante was soon published by the German publishing house Schott, there is no evidence of any other performance of this piece. The European premiere took place only in November 1999 in Zlín with Bohuslav Matoušek and the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra Zlín under Tomáš Koutník.
The only well-known piece on this disc is the Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra, H337. It was commissioned by the Ukrainian-born American viola player Jascha Veissi (1898–1983) and written in New York City from 15 March to 18 April 1952. Thanks to extensive research by Paul Silverthorne, the biography of the more-or-less forgotten Veissi is fairly well established. He was born as Joseph Weissman in Ukraine, studied the violin at the Odessa Conservatoire and emigrated to the United States in 1920. From 1921 he was a member of the first violins of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and was leader from 1927. He met Martinu in the late 1920s in Paris. In 1931 Veissi changed violin for viola and became principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and later a member of the famous Kolisch Quartet. He then had a busy schedule as soloist, chamber musician (later with the Coolidge Quartet) and teacher. In 1951 he commissioned Martinu to compose a concerto for viola.
In the Rhapsody-Concerto Martinu started his final major stylistical development towards neo-Romanticism (he himself described it as a turn from ‘geometry’ to ‘fantasy’). His ability to build up extensive lyrical passages ending in strong catharsis here reaches here its first peak. The work has just two movements. The first, Moderato, opens in B flat major, Martinu’s favoured key in his late works. With the switch of the two central notes the four-note motif Bb–A–Cb–Bb alludes to the main theme of the Kyrie in Antonín Dvorák’s Requiem. After a large orchestral introduction the viola enters with a lyrical cantabile melody. Although Martinu offers the soloist opportunities for virtuoso display, the main character of the work is lyrical and calm. Extensive use is made of the ‘Juliette chord’, with all its resonances described in connection with the Elegy from the first Suite concertante. The second movement, Molto adagio, opens in a tonality oscillating between E flat major and E flat minor. After a fast second motif (Poco allegro) Martinu introduces a simple but strong melody in F major, marked molto tranquillo. After a fast middle part Martinu returns to this melody once again in a moving coda. The final beats of the snare drum evoke an early reminiscence of the composer, who as a small child—so he recounted to Šafránek around the time he composed the Rhapsody-Concerto—used to walk around the gallery of the church tower in Policka, where he was born, playing a small drum.
The premiere of the Rhapsody-Concerto took place on 19 February 1953 with Jascha Veissi accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. During the three years of Veissi’s exclusivity with this concerto he played it in several places, the European premiere probably being in the same year in Geneva with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The performance on 2 July 1954 in Santa Barbara at the Pacific Coast Festival, with members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl, was reported by Veissi to have been recorded, but unfortunately the tape is missing. After Veissi’s period of exclusivity expired Martinu’s Rhapsody-Concerto became one of the most performed viola concertos of the twentieth century.
Aleš Brezina © 2008
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