'The Second Concerto is one of Martinu's great masterpieces. Overtly romantic, the Concerto has a huge emotional range; the first movement alone encapsulates epic tragedy and exultation in a strongly symphonic developmental frame which never gets in the way of ravishing lyricism. In these beautifully recorded performances, both Christopher Hogwood and Bohuslav Matoushek have a profound understanding of Martinu's style and the Czech Philharmonic responds with radiant playing … There is no finer performance of the First Concerto available' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Josef Suk set the benchmark for both concertos but his recordings … have been overtaken by this newcomer … My recommendation is for the Hyperion set as a whole' (Gramophone)
Allegro moderato [10'11]
Andante moderato [7'38]
Poco allegro [8'43]
This recording is the last volume of a four-disc survey of Martinu’s complete output for solo violin and orchestra, including compositions with other solo instruments. They are performed here by the orchestra in which Martinu played the violin, the distinguished Czech violinist Bohuslav Matoušek who is one of the foremost living exponents of this music, and conductor Christopher Hogwood.
Martinu’s Violin Concerto No 1 was written for the celebrated Polish-born American violinist Samuel Dushkin. Although immediately appealing to the performer, its premiere was delayed due to the volatile European political situation in the thirties, and the score was lost during World War II when Martinu was forced to hide his autographs in Europe and flee to the USA. The score was discovered in 1968 and the work did not receive its premiere until 1973. It is a dazzling, virtuoso work, revealing the influence of Dushkin’s violin playing, especially his liking for technical display.
The Violin Concerto No 2 is different from its predecessor both stylistically and in terms of its fate. It was commissioned by Mishca Elman (1891–1967), a famous American violinist of Ukrainian origin. The work’s main characteristics recall the qualities of Elman’s playing, notably his unique sound, his preference for noble and elegant melodies, his exceptional feeling for the sonority of his instrument, his love of slow tempos, and his rich use of rubato and portamento.
Bohuslav Matoušek demonstrates his great versatility in idiomatic performances of these contrasting works.
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Martinu’s Concerto No 1 for violin and orchestra H226 (recte H228/233, originally H232 bis) has a very complicated story. In the early 1930s Bohuslav Martinu was already well established in Paris, where he had arrived from Prague in 1923. He became a highly respected composer with performances of his operas, ballets, orchestral works and chamber music in several European cities as well as in the USA. His music earned awards and he was commissioned to write new works by both musicians and music institutions. Since it was well known that he originally played the violin (for some years, indeed, as a member of the Czech Philharmonic), it was only a matter of time before he received a commission for a violin concerto.
The commission came from the celebrated Polish-born American violinist Samuel Dushkin, the man who in the summer of 1931 inspired Igor Stravinsky to compose a violin concerto, and was supported by the publisher Willy Strecker, the owner of the Schott publishing house. This was at the time when Schott negotiated an exclusive contract with Martinu, which would have placed the composer among an elite group of composers with such a comprehensive publishing deal, alongside the likes of Paul Hindemith. (This explains the large correspondence between Martinu and Strecker, which helps us to trace the creation of his violin concerto virtually step by step.) Only the rise of the nationalist socialist politics in Germany with their aversion against the so-called ‘degenerated music’ prevented Schott from fulfilling this contract.
Martinu knew Dushkin from Paris, where they both lived in the early 1930s. He was present at Dushkin’s performance of Stravinsky’s violin concerto with the composer conducting. However, it seems that Martinu’s desire to write a concerto for Dushkin came independently, since on 22 May 1931, before Stravinsky started to work with Dushkin, he had already mentioned in a letter to Willy Strecker that he planned ‘to work with Mr Dushkin on a violin concerto’. Four months later, on 24 September 1931, Martinu confirmed to Strecker that he had spoken to Dushkin and was ‘ready to start composing the violin concerto’. On 9 December 1931, the day after his forty-first birthday, Martinu reported to Strecker that the concerto was ready and that he was ‘going to look over it with Mr Dushkin’.
From this remark it is obvious that Martinu did not yet appreciate Dushkin’s idea of cooperation on a new musical work. Dushkin was famous for taking an active role in influencing the composers he worked with. While for Stravinsky, a pianist, this was very welcome—he noted in his autobiography that Dushkin’s availability for advice was a factor in his undertaking the violin concerto—for the violinist Martinu this was a new experience and caused a lot of difficulties.
However, on 27 October Martinu was still quite hopeful. He wrote to Strecker that ‘the work on the concerto continues very well, Mr Dushkin is very contended’. For a composer who was used to writing quickly—in 1931 he finished twelve compositions and worked on the ballet Špalícek—it must have been a nightmare to return again and again to a piece he regarded as being completed. More than fifteen months later, on 8 February 1933, Martinu wrote to his relatives in Policka that he had done ‘a lot of work on the concerto for Dushkin’. Eight days later he reported that he had finished the work, and that Dushkin was ‘very happy’ with it.
Dushkin took the new concerto to the USA, where he sought opportunities to perform it—‘very soon, probably in Philadelphia’, according to Martinu (in a letter to his mother on 9 June 1933). However, this proved overly optimistic, as we can see from the composer’s letter to his family in Policka of 27 June, where he says that ‘Dushkin will return from the US in August and would like to do a final revision of the concerto’. At this time Martinu’s close friend Stanislav Novák, the leader of the Czech Philharmonic under Talich, revealed his interest in performing the concerto in Prague, but Dushkin refused to give permission as he wanted to do this himself. In September Martinu reported that Dushkin had returned to Paris and that they were to undertake ‘the definitive editing of the concerto’. A few days later it looks as if Novák’s interest in performing the work stimulated Dushkin, and Martinu reported to his mother that ‘Dushkin is going to perform the violin concerto in Prague, probably in January’. Schott were advised to send the fee for the concerto to Paris, which indicates that everything was at last reaching a conclusion. But again nothing happened, probably because of the political upheaval in Germany in 1933 and 1934.
Other proposed premieres of the concerto with Dushkin, including a performance at the New German Theatre in Prague in the autumn of 1934, were not realized. Four years later Dushkin prevented Louis Krasner from performing the work in the United States (according to a letter from Martinu to Strecker on 4 March 1938). Probably during World War II, when Martinu was forced to hide his autographs in Europe and flee to the USA, the score of the concerto was lost. It was discovered by Harry Halbreich in 1968 in the Moldenhauer Archives at the Northwestern University of Spokane (Washington). It was not until 25 October 1973 that the concerto received its premiere, in Chicago, with Josef Suk as the soloist and Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The first movement, Allegro moderato, reveals the influence of Dushkin’s violin playing, especially his liking for technical display. The short orchestral opening, centred on E, introduces the short syncopated motivic ‘cell’ (as the composer described it), which comprises six notes, five of them being E in different registers (with a short D being the other note). The solo violin takes up the main cell in a bravura passage full of double, triple and quadruple stops, harmonics and other virtuoso techniques. In the course of the movement the most significant elements are long passages written out in full triple stops and bright arpeggios. Martinu reveals his intimate understanding of the violin and his knowledge of the virtuoso violin literature he learned to play as a young boy in Policka. It is difficult to separate out his own background expertise and any special wishes of Dushkin, although it seems likely that the passages where the violin almost imitates a guitar demonstrate more of Dushkin’s ideas than do the lyrical and melodic passages, which are typical of Martinu’s output. Quite unusual for Martinu is the vast space he gives to the variations of the opening cell. It is not until the middle of the movement that he introduces a contrasting motif, in a mild E minor, where the violin sings in one long phrase a melody of outstanding beauty and simplicity, in the style of a Moravian folk song. To underline the change of mood, the accompaniment changes from a full orchestral staccato to tremolos in the strings. At the end of this extremely short (just 22 bars) but important section the melody of the solo violin is joined by a solo cello. The following reprise returns almost literally to the material of the opening section, first in A minor before finishing in the home key of E minor.
The second movement, Andante, is built on a broad cantilena, stylistically very close to the contemporaneous folk-ballet Špalícek H214. Its pendulum-like melodic line is based on the alternation of a central tone with upper and lower notes, mostly at the interval of a fourth.
The closing movement is an Allegretto (although this designation does not appear in the original manuscript and was assigned by the concerto’s editors, the violinist Josef Suk, the conductor Zdenek Košler and the Dvorák scholar Jarmil Burghauser). It starts attacca with a short main thematic cell. As in the first movement this is very short, here consisting of just five notes, with four of them being A (the other note is a B flat), but this time not distributed in different octaves. Melodically, the opening orchestral section continues the Špalícek-like character of the second movement. The entrance of the solo violin, however, with its richly ornamented writing, again bears Dushkin’s stamp. Its simple melodic line is decorated with several appoggiaturas. This is interrupted surprisingly quickly by a series of short solo cadenzas for the violin, and in one of these Martinu combines the solo violin in a highly original way with the snare drum—he returned to this distinctive timbre years later in the last movement of the Suite concertante H276 (also commissioned by Dushkin, see volume 3) as well as in his Phantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No 6) H343.
The Violin Concerto No 2 H293 is different in every respect from its predecessor, stylistically and in terms of its fate. It was commissioned by Mischa Elman (1891–1967), a famous American violinist of Ukrainian origin, a former child prodigy and student of Brodsky in Odessa and Leopold Auer in St Petersburg. Although born just two months later than Martinu, Elman gave his Berlin and London debuts before the composer even entered the Conservatory in Prague.
Miloš Šafránek, a friend and fiery supporter of Martinu, reports in his biography from 1944 that Elman attended a concert of the Boston Symphony in Carnegie Hall in early January 1943 hoping to hear Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, but walked instead into the New York premiere of Martinu’s Symphony No 1. After the overwhelming success of this symphony, which made Martinu famous in the USA almost overnight, Elman visited the composer and asked him to write a violin concerto for him. This must have been an interesting meeting, since it is difficult to imagine a bigger contrast between the activities of the soloist, focused mainly on repertoire of the eighteenth (Vivaldi, Bach) and especially the nineteenth centuries (Beethoven, Schubert, Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák), and the composer, who had been based in Paris, one of the most important centres of contemporary music. It is not surprising that the paths of Martinu and Elman had not previously crossed.
In the programme of the premiere of the Violin Concerto No 2 Šafránek recalls the circumstances of their first encounter: ‘Martinu’s monosyllabic manner was puzzling to Elman, who tried to break the ice by inquiring if he had heard any of the living world-famous violinists. “No”, was the reply. “Are you by any chance familiar with my playing?” ventured Elman. “No”, said Martinu flatly. There was a prolonged silence. Finally Elman tried to resolve the situation by taking Martinu to his studio and playing to him for half an hour or so. The composer listened very attentively, though with complete impassivity. After the last note Elman, very naturally, stood and waited for his reaction. But Martinu continued to sit in sphinx-like silence, which remained unbroken until he got up to leave and the two musicians bade each other an awkward goodbye. The violinist was completely baffled, and feared his scheme must result in failure. Before long, however, Martinu duly appeared with the finished score of a new violin concerto.’ This anecdote is supported by several other artists—Louis Moyse among them—who reported similar experiences in their dealings with Martinu.
Martinu composed the concerto in just two months, from 23 February to 26 April 1943, in his home in New York City. The work’s main characteristics recall the qualities of Elman’s playing, notably his unique sound, his preference for noble and elegant melodies, his exceptional feeling for the sonority of his instrument, his love of slow tempos, and his rich use of rubato and portamento.
In the programme of the premiere Martinu described the concerto in some detail: ‘The idea for this concerto presented itself to me with the following order—Andante, a broad lyric song of great intensity which leads to a Poco allegro, exploiting the technique and the virtuosity of the instrument, and has the aspect of a single-movement composition. The definitive form complies with concerto structure. I have preserved its grave character, lyric in the first part, and even in the middle Allegro, the Andante theme returns to close the movement. The second part [Andante moderato] is a sort of point of rest, a bridge progressing towards the final Poco allegro. It is an intermezzo moderato, almost bucolic, accompanied by only a part of the orchestra and progressing attacca into the finale, which is Poco allegro. This movement favours the technique of the violin, which is interrupted by broad and massive tutti passages. The concerto ends with a sort of stretto, Allegro (vivo).’ In his general thoughts on violin concertos of the past that follows, Martinu distinguishes several types of use of the solo violin and clearly prefers those which emphasize ‘inherent beauty of tone’.
According to Martinu’s programme notes for the premiere, the cadenza at the end of the first part was added subsequently at Elman’s suggestion. From Martinu’s letters to the Czech publisher Karel Šebánek it is obvious that he made some corrections to the score, probably in two stages. On 10 October 1947 he wrote: ‘I would like to make some changes in the cadenzas but I do not know where and whether to do so at all.’ More than a month later, on 18 November 1947, Martinu admitted to Šebánek that he had already ‘made some changes in the score after the premiere of the concerto’, and was not sure if the publisher had the corrected copy or not. The original manuscripts of the concerto (at least three are reported in the composer’s correspondence) and the handwritten piano reduction remain missing, so we cannot be certain whether these final revisions are included in the published version. The fact that Martinu later greeted the receipt of five printed scores sent to him on 3 December 1949, describing them as ‘splendid’, missing only the dedication to Mischa Elman, is offset by his well-known, rather cursory approach to proofreading.
The premiere of the concerto took place in Boston on 31 December 1943, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Sergey Koussevitzky. Happily it was broadcast and much later released on CD—a priceless document that highlights the personal character of this concerto and how it was tailored to Mischa Elman. Elman retained exclusivity with this concerto for three years after its premiere, and performed it often. After his exclusivity expired in 1946 the concerto was taken up by several violinists; in a letter to Šebánek from 7 January 1947 Martinu mentions ‘a big interest in the concerto’, citing ‘the brilliant young violinist Isaac Stern’ as one of the musicians investigating the work. Other violinists who performed the concerto include Louis Kaufman, Bruno Bevlcík and especially Josef Suk, who performed this concerto many times and in 1978 received the Grand Prix du Disque de l’Académie Charles Cros for his recording with Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic.
Aleš Brezina © 2008
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