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Bartók & Martinu

Supraphon for Christmas

Time for writing and reading are both limited in the run-up to Christmas. Short reviews and recommendations therefore for three remarkable releases from Prague.

Béla Bartók – Complete Violin Works / André Gertler

Josef Suk – violin, Diane Andersen – piano, Milan Etlík – clarinet,
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra / János Ferencsik, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Karel Ancerl

Concertos for Violin and Orchestra Nos 1 and 2, Rhapsodies for Violin and Orchestra Nos 1 and 2, 3 Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Sonata for Solo Violin, 44 Duos for 2 Violins, Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Hungarian Folk Songs Arranged for Violin and Piano/André Gertler

Supraphon SU 3924-2 [4 CDs]

This collection dating from 1964/65 is a good reason to acquire an intégrale box instead of shopping around for favourites within an oeuvre which well justifies acquiring complete. André Gertler (1907–1998) was unusual amongst violinists of his time for specialising in contemporary music. A friend of Bartok's (shown together 1959) his complete recording in the mid-1960’s of that composer's violin music is a treasurable boxed set, excellently remastered, and you need look no farther.

Gertler performed in recital with Bartók himself for over a decade, 1925–1938. There are three violin sonates, not just two, and the 1st concerto is not that well known. I first encountered the string quartets introduced by the Gertler String Quartet in Myra Hess's National Gallery concerts just after the War (and found them then weird) !

Gertler has a totally individual tone and precise focus in all his playing; I got to know his violin sonatas in the partnership with Diane Anderson saved for perpetuity here; their recorded performances have not been importantly superceded. The recording studio makes for a dry sound, with every note and nuance absolutely clear; you quickly get used to it. The first of the sonatas fro the 1920s is amongst my favourite music of the time, and this account is spell binding.

Martinu: Špalícek
– ballet in 3 acts: The Spectre´s Bride – ballad based on K. J. Erben´s poem: Romance of the Dandelions – cantata: The Primrose

Kantilena Children’s Chorus, Kuhn Mixed Chorus, Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Symphony Orchestra Conductor(s): Frantisek Jilek, Jiri Belohlavek

SU39252 [146 mins]

Bohuslav Martinü (1890-1959) has suffered from being exceptionally prolific and got himself a reputation that his too numerous compositions are uneven. This double CD collects several very unusual works, all unknown to me and each of them a gem. They were all composed in his lengthy exile from which he never returned, and they are redolent of his homeland and its folk lore.

Špalícek, a choral ballet of "national games, customs and fairy tales” is given here in the original 1931–32 version, closing with the scary “ballet cantata” The Spectre’s Bride, based on the poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, the renowned Czech folk song collector. The cantata Romance of the Dandelions (1957) is about a young maiden who waits for seven long years for her beloved to return from the war. The pure soprano of Milada Cejkova resonates in the memory. The Primrose (1954) is a delicious set of vocal duets on the of Moravian folk song texts, set economically with piano and violin accompaniment; I should have expected it to have made the regular repertoire.

A 75 page booklet guides you through all of the works with words and parallel multilingual translations, charming to follow.

Also received for review in the same batch is a Czech TV DVD Martinu's The Greek Passion (1955-57). This somewhat problematic opera, which Martinu had difficulties in completing, was a resounding success at Covent Garden in 2000 and when revived there 2004 - directed with thoughtful artistry by David Pountney - - a sensational revolving set by Stefanos Lazaridis - - Charles Mackerras inspired the orchestra with conviction in bringing this brave venture to such gratifying success, another notable service to Czech music by its most famous champion - - [PGW & AW]

John Mitchinson, Helen Field & John Tomlinson etc
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Josef Veselka, Kühn Children´s Chorus/Jiri Chvala and Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras.

Supraphon DVD SU 7014-9 231

Supraphon has released The Greek Passion in a Czech film from 1981, filmed in a natural mostly outdoor setting, sung to the composer's original English libretto by a cast based on the benchmark Welsh National Opera/Mackerras CD recording. Adaptation and abridgement were needed for Czech TV.

This is recommendable issue, but with a warning that purchasers may experience difficulties with the menu and set-up on some DVD players. The diction (and some of the dubbing) is reasonably good, but more words are lost from the female singers. There are some longeurs, and the film meets the frequent obstacle of a mismatch between studio recorded sound and outdoor scenes.

Before the end I was tending to share some of Roderick Swanston's reservations after he saw the 2004 revival at Covent Garden, which for him failed to match up with the overwhelming experience of the 2000 premiere there. I am feeling similarly as I write now about The Greek Passion; finally, I think that Špalícek and its unpretentious companion pieces reviewed above will endure longer.

The Greek Passion film will be however be reviewed more fully separately in due course.

Peter Grahame Woolf