The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (50): The viola’s greatest moment

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (50): The viola’s greatest moment


norman lebrecht

May 04, 2020

We’ve been locked down for seven weeks now and I’ve been saving something special for the 50th entry in our daily series.

When the viola starts playing in Bohuslav Martinu’s Rhapsody-Concerto, the world stops in its tracks.

This all-Czech performance is as good as it gets.

There is no greater underrated composer than Martinu.



  • David K. Nelson says:

    Josef Suk’s recording, right? His Mozart quintets with the Smetana Quartet are also exquisite examples of fine viola playing. Written for Jascha Veissi.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    “There is no greater underrated composer than Martinu.”

    Maybe, but there is no shortage of excellent recordings of his music, notably by great Czech musicians and by the Czech Philharmonic.

  • Phillip Rose says:

    Josef Suk – viola
    Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
    Conductor: Václav Neumann
    Recorded at the Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum in Prague, 1987

  • lori says:

    Boy was that something.

  • Andy says:

    Love the Second fiddle concerto, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, and the opera Julietta. But never been too mad on the symphonies…

    I reckon the Respighi and Zemlinsky operas are due some attention.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Julietta is a fantastic opera, a dreamscape of surrealism. Strange that it is so seldom produced, it does not require very difficult staging , and the music is great.

  • batonbaton says:

    If there’s a sweepstake for “the greatest under-rated composer” you are likely to be flooded with cases made for every one that languishes perpetually on the fringes of the repertoire: Respighi, Busoni, Enescu, Holmboe, Wiren, Nordheim or Eben… take your pick

    • will says:

      Martinů is/was a far greater composer than those 7 that you cite ( in my opinion of course).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed. The mentioned 7 lack musical substance: inventive thematic material, overall convincing organisation, emotional depth.

  • Algot says:

    Lubomir Maly´, Prague Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Václav Smetácek. Recorded on Panton 1979. Warmly recommended.

  • Larry W says:

    Martinů wrote a fantastic Viola Sonata. Also, a Divertimento, three Madrigals, and a Duet for violin and viola, plus a Serenade for two violins and viola.

  • Helen Tuckey says:

    I loved hearing my teacher Lillian Fuchs remembering her conversations with him about the viola sonata and the madrigals.

    • NYMike says:

      And Lillian and brother Joe made the best recording of the Madrigals which were dedicated to them.

    • Dear Mrs Tuckey, I am working for the International Martinů Circle in Prague. We issue a journal called Martinů Revue. Please would you make a small interview with me and remember your teacher Lillian Fuchs? We are very glad to read you know her and her memories onBohuslavMartinů. Thank you very much in advance for your answer. Lucie Harasim,

  • MezzoLover says:

    Let’s not forget his wonderful operas.

    He wrote a total of 15 (16 if you count Divadlo za branou, his 1936 opera-ballet in three acts), and they all deserve to be better known. My personal favorite is the early (1937-8) Julietta, a surrealistic dream play that is widely considered his masterpiece.

    Martinů is actually one of my favorite opera composers, along with two other M’s – Monteverdi and Mozart. His musical genius is absolutely astounding, and I can never understand why he is so under-appreciated outside his Czech homeland.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A reason may be the disconcerting way Martinu sidesteps expectations, melodically and harmonically. The patterns are not set-up in a strong way, and the deviations often sound rather random. That does not mean that the music is weak, but that it does not offer much ‘grip’ to the listener who has to first get used to the waywardness. To my feeling, it is often a ‘shy’ music, slipping out of any clear framework.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        That’s a very astute analysis, John. But he has a distinctive thumbprint, rare among composers at any time. Hear 10 bars of Martinu and you’ll recognise him.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, that is the striking thing about M’s music, his fingerprints are all over the place. And that is the sign of great personal originality, as a natural given, not as something desperately searched for.

  • Stephen Morris says:

    Martinu is wonderful and this work encapsulates his greatness. Loved his music since I bought his 5th Symphony on a 10″ LP in Birmingham in the 50s. Karel Ancerl and Czech Phil

  • Bruce says:

    I have this recording, along with both of the Violin Concerti. Josef Suk is a marvel.