> Bohuslav Martinu - Symphony No. 5 [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Symphony No 5. H.310 [30’22"]*
Memorial to Lidice. H.296 [8’36"]**
Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca. H.352 [17’45"]***
The Parables. H.367 [20.00"]****
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karel Ančerl

Recorded in the Dvořák Hall of the House of Artists, Prague: *21-23 March 1955; **20 March 1957; *** 14 and 14 February 1959; ****26 and 28 April 1961.
Items marked *** and **** in stereo
SUPRAPHON 11 1931-2 001 [77’03"]

Karel Ančerl (1908-1973) was a very fine conductor but I’m not sure he has always received due acknowledgement. One reason for this may well be the intermittent availability of Supraphon recordings in the West. As this CD shows, his partnership with the Czech Philharmonic, of which he was successively Principal or Chief Conductor between 1950 and 1968, was a formidable one. This generously filled programme comprises music by Martinů in recordings made in the heyday of that partnership.

Ančerl directs a finely detailed and grave account of Memorial to Lidice (1943), Martinů's eloquent elegy to the victims of a Nazi atrocity in the town of Lidice. It is one of the composer’s finest utterances and here receives a performance which is wholly worthy of it.

The Frescos (1956) is one of Martinů's most winning scores. The music is of considerable richness and invention, teeming with detail and skilfully orchestrated. The luminous sonorities are extremely well realised in this performance. Ančerl displays both a keen ear for the constantly shifting textures and an acute sense of rhythm. This is a marvellous account of this vibrant, colourful score and it is played with great intensity by the CPO. (How refreshing it is to hear once again the distinctive tang of their woodwind and the even more characteristic vibrant tone of the east European brass players: it suits this music so well.) The second part of the triptych, depicting the Dream of Constantine, is, I think, particularly fine with some wonderfully eloquent playing from the richly toned, well-nourished string section.

The Parables (1958-9) is a very late work. The eponymous parables are not of the biblical variety. The first two, ‘Parable of a sculptor’ and ‘Parable of a garden’ are inspired by passages from The Citadel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The third, ‘Parable of a Labyrinth’ takes for its inspiration words from the play Theseus’ Voyage by Georges Neveux (all the relevant texts are printed in the booklet).

By the time he wrote this work Martinů was mortally ill and much of the music seems to me to be imbued with a sense of valedictory ecstasy. To be truthful, the words which fired Martinů's imagination are somewhat allusive and, particularly when one reads them shorn of their literary context, it’s far from easy to grasp the meaning behind them, still less to relate them to the music. However, Martinů’s pieces can be enjoyed on their own merits, I think, and they seem to me to be performed here with authority and conviction. The CzPO was a very fine band at this period and they serve Martinů well.

The most substantial single work on the disc is the Fifth Symphony (1946). As it happens, a much later, live performance by Ančerl has just been released in the excellent volume of EMI’s Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century series (a mandatory purchase for Ančerl's admirers). This later performance was given in 1971 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose Chief Conductor Ančerl was from 1968 until his death. The Czech account is much more expansive than the Toronto reading; in Toronto Ančerl took just over 27 minutes.

This CzPO performance was, I suspect, the first recording of the work. Perhaps that accounts for the extra degree of electricity. Certainly, as compared with the Toronto recording I find much more tension in the slow introduction to the first movement and there seems to be more of a sense of release and joy when the main allegro arrives (track 1, 1’54"). Thereafter, in the Czech performance there is an abundance of athleticism and freshness, not quite matched in Toronto, as the movement unfolds.

The second movement, which seems almost to begin in mid-sentence, is marked Larghetto. The Czech performance is marginally slower and more closely equates to what I understand by that marking. The important flute solo, for instance (track 2, 0’59") is not appreciably slower than in Toronto but the player just seems to have that little bit extra time for the long phrases (that, of course, may well be as much due to the skill of the Czech flautist as it is to Ančerl's pacing.) Ančerl builds the movement purposefully to its strong but lyrical central climax (track 2., 4’12”). This is followed by a passage dominated by a solo trumpet (4’38” to 5’31”) which might almost have been written by Copland – the symphony was written in America – and I love the silvery, open tone of the Czech trumpeter, which seems to convey an impression of nostalgia and of the open-air to perfection.

It is in the finale where I think this earlier reading is most to be preferred to Ančerl’s later account. The largo introduction is well played by the Toronto musicians but the CzPO, at a broader tempo, not only dig into the notes more, they also dig behind them. The result is a taut, searching passage of great intensity. Timings don’t always tell the full story but I think it’s significant that in 1971 Ančerl took 2’54” for this section whereas in 1955 he stretched the music to 3’57” and, to my ears, attained greater depth as a result. In the main allegro, too, there seems just a fraction more space around the notes and a heightened sense of exaltation in the Czech performance.

I think there are two other factors which weigh in favour of this Czech recording over the Toronto account. Firstly the sound, though it has some limitations – not serious, in my view – and is more resonant is actually more open and pleasant to listen to, I find. Secondly, though the Toronto orchestra plays well enough the CzPO, admittedly recorded under studio conditions, are in a different class. This, I think, is definitely the Ančerl version of this symphony to have.

This, then, is a first rate anthology of Martinů orchestral works. All the performances are top class. It seems to me that these Czech musicians had a fervour to communicate the music of their native land in the same way that characterised, say, the 1950s Danish recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies. Ančerl’s interpretations strike me as being completely natural and authoritative. The sound is perfectly adequate and the notes are serviceable though the English translations are a trifle clumsy.

Admirers of Martinů’s music are strongly advised to snap up this CD while it remains available. I highly recommend this release.

John Quinn

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