This set delightfully answers the need for a traversal of all of Martinů's music for violin and orchestra in a double-width plastic box. It's a sobering thought, but if ever Supraphon were to produce a bumper orchestral Martinů edition they would do well to license these recordings and the three volume of early orchestral works issued by Toccata.
The Czech composer's bulging catalogue lends itself to complete this or that: symphonies, piano concertos, piano music and so on. While other companies, including Naxos, have risen to meet the challenge, Supraphon are prominent and prolific in this. The soloist here, Bohuslav Matoušek, has already contributed with plenteous quantity and artistry via two Supraphon boxes of the composer's music for violin and piano. As things have turned out, those Czech sets were a precursor to the present project. Indeed, one earlier disc (Supraphon and Matoušek) in part is reflected in the more generous CD3 of the present box. After that disc Supraphon appear to have looked elsewhere, leaving the way open for this complete edition of the works for violin and orchestra to come out on four individual CDs on Hyperion. Rather like Raymond Leppard of yore, Christopher Hogwood was for years identified with the Baroque. As Leppard did with Bax (Symphony 5 and 7) so did Hogwood with Martinů, but more so. Hogwood dipped his toe in the water with the Toccata e Due Canzoni for Arte Nova and then followed this up with Supraphon and Naxos. Hyperion already had a track record with the composer. Superbly handled they are, and were, too. They were documented with elite quality (as is the present box) by Martinů magus Aleš Březina. The only compromise now is that the notes are in English only whereas the individual discs also rendered the essays in French and German. Some of these works may be familiar. The two violin concertos (CD4) and the viola concerto (CD3) have been a catalogue presence since LP days, usually on Supraphon, but increasingly taken up by other labels. Most of these attractive works are not that commonly encountered.
Keen and bright-eyed accounts of the neo-classical works, such as that contributed by Janne Thomsen in the case of Concerto for flute, violin and orchestra, typify the composer's Paris years. I came to know this work from a BBC broadcast by Trevor Williams (violin) and Mary Ryan (flute) in 1975 in which the BBC Scottish were conducted by Christopher Adey who also directed what was a rare cycle of Martinů symphonies at about the same time. The rather touching central Adagio has more expressive 'juice' than the gleaming busy-busy outer movements. CD1 is completed with two works for two violins and orchestra. Here Matoušek is joined in each case by Régis Pasquier (Duo) and Jennifer Koh (Concerto). Latterly Koh has branched out into the Martinů Second Violin Concerto for Cedille. The Duo Concertante (with prominent orchestral piano) is concise and its needle-point steely delicacy makes it a good companion. It is cut from the same cloth as the flute work. It has none of the compelling over-arching anxiety to be heard in the Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani (1938). The lovely Concerto for two violins and orchestra dates from Martinů's final decade and apart from the Haydn-obsessed Moderato is noticeably in an idiom that we can identify from the masterly Fourth Symphony—a product of WW2 years in the USA. As I noted when writing about the earlier Arte Nova recording, it was written for the twins, Gerald and Wilfred Beal, and premiered in Dallas in 1951. The finale comes close to indulging a foot-tapping rumba and is ferociously virtuosic.
CD2 unleashes a work which by its title raises neo-classical expectations but its language is true to its date of 1941. This places it close to the time when the First Symphony was composed - the first of six written in and, I think, premiered in the USA. It has the pounding and pouncing febrile energy (and orchestral piano) of the Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani. The two works, at least in the outer movement material, could have been separated at birth. The Concerto for violin, piano and orchestra is one of Martinů's most accomplished and enjoyable works. Dating from twelve years after the Concerto da Camera it is impassioned and is awash in emotion and flooded with rapidly tumbling energy. It is a dazzling successor to the version recorded and issued on vinyl in the 1970s by Nora Grumlikova (violin) and Jaroslav Kolar (piano) with the Czech PO conducted by Zdenĕk Košler (110 1348 - never reissued on CD). The overture-length Czech Rhapsody is heard here in an arrangement. In its original form it was written for Fritz Kreisler. Written in the USA in the year the war ended, it is a natural and meet companion to the Violin/Piano Concerto in its easy yet never facile meeting of rhythmic pulse and all-conquering melody. It's a very different work from the identically titled and much lengthier piece (H118) written 27 years earlier.
The third disc gives insight into two versions of a work … or is it just two works? The Suite concertante in its first version was written in 1939. The second is from five years later. Here was a four-movement work which in the case of both versions was written for Samuel Dushkin. Dushkin was the dedicatee of the Stravinsky Concerto and of Martinů's own First Violin Concerto and was the premiere player of the orchestral version of Ravel's Tzigane. The Suite has far more yield and take and greater 'plush' than any of the neo-classical Parisian works. I doubt that anyone would have blanched if Martinů had dubbed it a 'concerto'. In the case of the second version, as Březina says in his sedulously detailed note, this is far more than a revision of the 1939 work. After a darting propulsive Toccata comes an extended meditative Aria that at times feels close to Barber's Adagio. The following Scherzo alternates termagant writing with gentle lyric passages. After wasp-flights and cascading sparks comes the beetling tower of the finale. The Rhapsody-Concerto of 1952 has Matoušek taking up the viola. This much-recorded work was written for Ukrainian violist Jascha Veissl (1898-1983) who performed it with the Cleveland, the Suisse Romande and the San Francisco. The latter were conducted by Walter Hendl, who championed Martinů's Fourth Symphony, as well as Creston's Fourth, Roy Harris's First and Mennin's Fifth. While this work has its animated moments in the finale (there are just two movements) it is of a predominantly poetic character. Both aspects are well put across in this Hyperion version.
The last disc is the shortest with the two Violin Concertos. It's a slight pity that the sessions did not have a slot for the Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, bassoon, violin, cello and orchestra (1949) even if the solo violin there has quite a subservient place in the soundscape. These two concertos are the principal works in the genre. The First tends towards a certain overly-busy showiness but is still unmistakable Martinů. The vintage Second Concerto is dedicated to Mischa Elman. It tracks the same catastrophe-strewn acres as the later Lidice Memorial (Conlon; Ančerl) and the exuberance and lyrical temperament of the Fourth Symphony. Matoušek's performance is a very superior article but does not dull memories of the Louis Kaufman version once to be had in veteran off-air mono on Cambria. Hogwood, Matoušek and the Czech players give their all in puissance and delicacy.
It's more than good to see all these excellent, affluent-toned recordings getting a refreshed shot in the arm. They were mostly taken down in 2004 and 2005 and very happily first issued by Hyperion in 2007-2008. They're so much more desirable than the mere fact that there is no like-for-like competition and that all four discs are now to be had at a very accessible price.