Neumann and Supraphon were first in the complete recorded Martinu symphony
stakes. I remember those pioneering LPs - a mix of single discs and a very
ungainly 2LP boxed set that married symphonies 3, 4 and 5 with all sorts
of disruptive side breaks (you remember side breaks!). Eventually a 4LP boxed
set was issued before the CD ruthlessly swept the unlamented vinyl off the
We are talking about the very late 1970s before the Martinu /Neumann
LPs emerged in the US and the UK. The wonder is that it had taken so
long for Supraphon to record all six. When they got around to it they did
the whole project in Prague from January 1976 to September 1978. Before then
you had to make do with various LPs and 78s: Unicorn's production
conducted by Dr Michael Bialoguski (with the New Philharmonia - coupled with
a - or the - Vorisek symphony) of No. 6, Ancerl's 5 and 6 (mono), No. 2 conducted
by Sejna on Czech 78s, No. 6 on mono RCA (Boston SO/Munch), No. 5 on Louisville
conducted by the tireless Robert Whitney and the LP that won over so many
to Martinu , the stereo Supraphon of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Turnovsky.
In the CD age Behlolavek has recorded 1, 4 and 6 on Chandos. His No. 4 (another
version) coupled with Otakar Trhlik's version of No. 5 is on a Panton CD
I have been trying to track down. Fagen's cycle on Naxos has so far proven
rather plodding and lacking rhythmic vitality.
On UK BBC Radio 3 we could console ourselves with Zdenek Macal (now
a Delos man!) conducting the Hallé Orchestra in the First Symphony
in the broiling summer of 1977. A couple of years before that Christopher
Adey did a remarkable cycle of all six with the BBC Scottish SO. It
was Adey's brilliant traversal that drew me further into the
Martinu whirlpool. How I wish I had recordings of those Adey performances.
Can anyone help?
The Supraphon notes (they seem to have been written in 1989) by Jaroslav
Mihule (an expert on the composer who has written several books on the subject
- sadly not translated into English) are exemplary. They buck the Czech trend
of years gone by when Supraphon LPs were usually 'blessed' with hilarious
translations into quasi-English. Mihule's information is date, place and
person specific. Musical analysis is left on the sidelines. Biographical
backdrop is carefully placed alongside artistic cross-reference. Models for
The First Symphony was written within a year of the composer's
dispossessed arrival in the USA. It was begun in May 1942 in Jamaica and
finished quite quickly in 15 weeks - this the longest of the six. By then
Martinu was 51 - a late age for starting down the symphonic route -
although Brahms was also a late starter. Koussevitsky commissioned the symphony
(alongside Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky's
Ode) in memory of his wife, Natalie.
The Second came within a year; and thereafter the symphonies were
produced one a year until 1946.
Brian Large's Duckworth book on Martinu (long out of print) tracks over
the development of the symphonic form. No. 1 is in a conventional four movement
pattern; No. 3 reduced the middle section which developed further into an
effective two movements (there are nominally four) in No. 4. The Sixth is
in the nature of a set of fantasy variations. Large also claims the Frescoes
of Pierro della Francesca and The Parables as symphonies manqué
- effectively numbers 7 and 8.
The First is romantically inclined - thick with images of seas thriving
with swirling plankton, effervescently irrepressible, the stamp of the Rite
of Spring, the chuckle of Petrushka, the third movement a funereal
reflection rising to a great string anthem - the equipoise of the whole work.
Joy is unleashed in the finale predictive of the life force of the Fourth
The Second is innocently pastoral - naively flowing in the gracious
and serene manner of Dvorák in the Serenade for Strings and
the Eighth Symphony. There are impressionistic traces as well. These were
picked up from his Parisian years and parallel his First Quartet The French.
The piano often plays a noticeable role in the orchestral works whether or
not designated as a concerto. In the Third the role is prominent -
especially noticeable in the massive-feeling first movement. In the final
movement there are Tallis-like moments as well as the insect buzz
of the Sixth Symphony. The optimistic woodwind calls are superbly recorded
by Supraphon's analogue engineers who also capture the sweetest of high arching
While the Fifth and Sixth are popularly singled out as the strongest of the
sextet my vote goes to the Fourth as Martinu 's most lyrical,
heart-easing and dynamic inspiration - truly a gripping symphony. In the
second movement Neumann outpoints the famous Turnovsky for tensile snap and
malevolence. The brilliance of the brass writing in the last movement must
surely have been influenced by Janacek's Sinfonietta and Ravel's
orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition.
The Fifth is, to my ears, Beethovenian with the stomp of Beethoven
5 and 7. Kleiber (fils et père) would make, and would have made, hay
with this work. Neumann brings out the brusque vitality and violence of the
score as well as its iridescent transparency and diaphanous translucency.
While Number Four is a work of perfection - equipoise of poetry and dynamism
- numbers 5 and 6 have always struck me as flawed in comparison though the
Neumann gives the Fifth the best performance I have heard. In the finale
Neumann and Martinu find ecstatic revelation in the line between melody and
The Sixth is static - more easily heard as three independent
fantasies than as a symphonic unit. Number Five has motion and emotion
but misses the exalted thematic production and elation of the Fourth. Neumann
makes of No. 5 the best case I have heard and his Fourth is only a notch
or two down from the classic (and anyway unavailable) Turnovsky (reissued
on CD very briefly on the American Urania label). Behlolavek on Chandos is
The Sixth's murmurous buzzing (for all the world like a great cloud
of locusts) may well be linked to the buzzing noise he heard in his head
following a serious fall within years after he arrived in the USA (parallels
with the whistle heard with the onset of Smetana's deafness and reflected
in his String Quartet No. 1 From My Life). Neumann conjures the scorching
updraft of a torrid summer's day - perhaps with memories also of the Mistral
and the Föhn winds. Martinu has treated us before now to anthems
hymned out to an impassive firmament and so it is here. In mastery the theme
approaches Barber's Adagio but retains aristocratic restraint.
The Sixth Symphony is the only one to bear a title and like Sibelius's Seventh
(and similarly final) symphony it cross-fertilises symphony and fantasy.
Unlike the Sibelius the Martinu is in his three movement template rather
than a monolith.
There are younger and, it has to be said, more transparent recordings than
these Supraphons. Claus Peter Flor on RCA/BMG seems rather under-muscled
though, truth to tell, I have not heard the CD of numbers 3 and 4 (if anyone
has a copy please contact me at email@example.com). Neeme Järvi
is much more imaginative and is well worth hearing. He is handsomely served
by BIS with the first purely CD and DDD cycle. The Neumann is stereo but
AAD - not digitally remastered. Bryden Thomson on Chandos did the complete
cycle and interpretatively his set is highly regarded although the Scottish
National Orchestra (as it then was before it gained its 'Royal' handle) has
come in for some stick due to various roughnesses.
Neumann brings warmth and élan to the symphonies. In the First Symphony
there is a trace of harshness on the strings. Generally however the recording
leans towards warmth and atmosphere rather than to transparency of detail.
This works well most of the time and is well suited to the soundwashes of
the Sixth. Number Four, which is an exemplar of plangent and luminous
orchestration, is lovingly advocated by engineers, players and conductor.
This Supraphon is not a fashionable choice and its presence on your shelves
may draw quizzical looks but try defying fashion and you will find this a
rewarding and persuasive companion.