Bohuslav Martinů is surely one of the most underrated composers of the 20th century. His unique brand of neoclassicism is addictive: a vivid celebration of folk dance and classical tradition, spiced with pungent harmonies and rhythmic verve. It’s a wonder his music is not performed more. Kudos then to the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, whose recent release of the composer’s two suites from his ballet Špalíček bursts onto the scene with breathtaking élan.

A testament to Martinů’s innovative approach to genre, Špalíček was conceived as a hybrid work: a ballet with operatic elements. Translated as ‘Chapbook’, a collection of literary subjects in pamphlet form, Špalíček is a charming conglomeration of fairytales. Familiar characters like Puss in Boots cavort with lions, mice and sparrow hawks, while a princess is rescued (with the aid of a butterfly) by a cobbler from the grips of a terrible giant. There are magicians and mysterious shadows, enchanted castles and even a catchy waltz at Cinderella’s palace ball. And the music is just as imaginative as the stories.

The vibrant orchestration shows an early 20th-century predilection for woodwind and brass, with plenty of percussion and piano punctuating the bubbly score. Martinů’s musical subjects are mostly of Bohemian and Moravian folk origin, and the treatment draws to mind the sparkling neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella ballet and Les Noces. There are notes of Hindemith and Bartók too. 

Under the enthusiastic direction of Neeme Järvi, the orchestral sound is breathtaking; full, radiant and with plenty of colour, drawing you into the fantastical, fairy-tale world of the ballet. Järvi leads with gusto, eliciting a high-spirited reading that’s ‘on point’ the whole way through. 

The disc also includes the Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra, featuring Mikhail Zemtsov as soloist. It’s a markedly different work from Špalíček – more serious for a start, but also invoking a Romantic spirit. A later work for the composer (30 years after Špalíček), it’s by no means the most electric of Martinu˚ ’s concerti. But it serves as a fine demonstration of Zemtsov’s warm and articulate playing. 

The opening Moderato is dominated by a noble lyricism, featuring moments of impassioned solo passagework. The second movement opens soberly, eventually breaking into a vibrant and bristling Allegro. There are some moments of bravura, but ultimately the work comes off as rather flat next to the resplendence of Špalíček. A fine disc, nonetheless.