Neeme Järvi conducts Suites from Martinů’s ‘Špalíček’

'Neeme Järvi has bright sympathy with the most resolutely tonal numbers, homespun ideas with rhythmic and passing harmonic piquancy'

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COMPOSERS: Bohuslav Martinu
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Martinů
WORKS: Špalíček: Suites Nos 1 & 2; Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
PERFORMER: Mikhail Zemtsov (viola); Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: Chandos CHAN 10885

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It looks like Martinů’s symphonies are finally attaining their rightful place at the centre of the 20th-century repertoire; now it’s time to give the ballets by this prolific Czech genius a chance. I’m not sure that the two orchestral suites quite offer enough for Špalíček, the collection of fairy-tale songs and riddles from his homeland. In its original form it has the bonus of soloists and choirs (there is just one complete recording, conducted by František Jílek, released on Suprahon). Still, Neeme Järvi has bright sympathy with the most resolutely tonal numbers, homespun ideas with rhythmic and passing harmonic piquancy, above all the garish village-band ‘Wedding Polka’.

The most extended number, ‘Cinderella’s Ball at the Palace’, is a dream-waltz not far removed from the surrealist world of Martinů’s operatic masterpiece Julietta, and foreshadow Prokofiev’s more extrovert moonshine in his own Cinderella waltzes. Other impressions are more fugitive, especially in the Second Suite, until its gravely beautiful final dance, and the sound in Tallinn’s Estonia Concert Hall feels rather recessed.

The sound’s focus is tightened up for the 1952 Rhapsody-Concerto. Here the Estonian strings sing their hearts out in the nostalgic opening movement, with its harping on the famous cadence from Julietta which clearly had so special a significance in most major works Martinů composed after this. The woodwind solos are very lovely, too. Viola-player Mikhail Zemtsov impresses with the sheer beauty of tone, less so in finding what’s behind the often very simple notes; nothing is now going to budge my allegiance to Maxim Rysanov on BIS Records in my top recording of 2015, an overwhelmingy beautiful sequence of Martinů works featuring that most plangent of instruments.

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David Nice