Three Madrigals (Duo No. 1 for Viola and Violin) (**)
Duo No. 2 for Viola and Violin (***)
Sonata for Viola and Piano (****)
Maxim Rysanov, Viola
BBC Symphony Orchestra, conduced by Jiri Belohavlek (*)
Alexander Sitkovetsky, Violin (** and ***)
Katya Apekisheva, Violin (****)
BIS 2030 Hybrid SACD/CD
All of the pieces in this very welcome disc from BIS were written in the United States during the later stages of Martinu’s career– the first three during Martinu’s long period of exile (1941-1953) and the fourth during a seven month stay in New York in 1955-6. Martinu had started out as a violinist and his empathy for the violin appears to have carried over the viola. These four pieces, wonderfully played by Maxim Rysanov on a Guadignini viola from 1780, do great justice both to Martinu’s inventiveness as a composer and to the distinctive sound of the viola, surely the most undeservedly neglected instrument in the orchestra.
The viola’s distinctive texture and depth of sound comes across particularly clear in the two Duos for viola and violin – an unusual pairing for which the repertoire is rather thin. The first, confusingly titled Three Madrigals, is relatively well known. In the middle of its three movements Rysanov displays the viola’s rich sound to excellent effect, interwoven very lyrically with Sitkovetsky’s violin. The second Duo is also very appealing, as is the two movement Sonata for Viola and Piano.
The Rhapsody-Concerto is striking and definitely one of the high points of the concertante viola repertoire, along with Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and Walton’s Viola Concerto. It is unusually constructed. The second of its two movements has four distinct sections, the second of which is a cadenza for the soloist. Within this structure Martinu combines deep lyricism, harmonic innovation, and lengthy stretches of counterpoint with a distinctly baroque feel – all brought out very ably by the BBC Symphony under the Czech Jiri Belohavlek who at the time was still the Principal Conductor before moving in 2012 to the Czech Philharmonic.
The playing from all participants is of an extremely high standard and BIS’s production values on this disc are very high. I listened in both CD and SACD and was favorably impressed by the sound quality. The disc also offers the option of 5.0 surround sound. The liner notes are excellent. Highly recommended.