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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
The Six Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1942)
Symphony No. 2 (1943)
Symphony No. 3 (1944)
Symphony No. 4 (1945)
Symphony No. 5 (1946)
Symphony No. 6 Fantaisies Symphoniques (1953)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Recorded 4-7 May 1987 (1-4); 28-20 Mar 1988 (5-6), Dominikanerbau, Bamberg.
BIS BIS-CD-362 [60.52]
BIS BIS-CD-363 [62.44]
BIS BIS-CD-402 [59.16]
available boxed or separately


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This was a set of the symphonies that, like Bryden Thomson’s, I’d not really got around to. The single discs as above are also available in a box set and it’s been a pleasure to listen to them, not least for some of the best recorded Martinů symphonies on disc. I won’t hedge my bets – clearly specialists will pick and choose individually – but I will say that you won’t be at all disappointed listening to this cycle and you will gain a great deal from the clarity, acumen and sheer intelligent level-headedness of Järvi’s conducting. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment it’s not meant to.

If you have or can find Claus Peter Flor’s Berlin Symphony RCA Red Seal recordings of the earlier symphonies, almost contemporaneous with these, you may wonder what the differences are between them. In terms of tempo not much; in terms of orchestral excellence very little but Järvi has the better sound and also slightly the better of the musical argument. In the First Järvi is the more convincing in terms of tempo contrasts whereas Flor makes much of the sometimes dramatic dynamic gradients in the music – sometimes it has to be said a little too much. Flor indeed treats the whole opening of the symphony as a sustained orchestral crescendo whereas Järvi admits of a degree more ambiguity. When it comes to the Second Järvi is more forward moving than his German rival and once again – a feature of their divergence - doesn’t observe the steep dynamics that Flor cultivates. Overall however Järvi’s sense of colour is slightly the more convincing in the winning Second. Of the Third I find that he brings out the motoric writing well – as well as the latent power – and evokes the string choirs, chaste but full of tension, with exemplary understanding. He moves forward well and only when he makes an unmarked rit in the finale did I seriously part company with him. Turn to Ancerl however and one finds a different kind of Martinů conducting – one that mines a vein of melancholy that younger musicians seldom do. At a much slower tempo in the Largo Ancerl is almost Brucknerian in his depth and his orchestral palette is that much more spectral and fearful than any other conductor has ever dared it to be.

In comparison with Vaclav Neumann in the Fourth (editor Rob Barnett swears by the Turnovsky 1970s reading by the way, which I’ve not heard) one finds that Järvi takes sensible tempi without extremes. His climaxes tend to be more abrupt than the Czech conductor’s and Neumann tends to coalesce orchestral material more levelly. I liked Järvi’s Largo, which is long breathed and notably well played but Neumann – a distinguished string player in his youth of course – does sustain the lyrical tension that bit better. As recorded sound goes though the Bamberg recording is significantly better. In the great Fifth Symphony Järvi’s is a fine and perfectly convincing statement. He tightens the tension from 5.20 in the first movement, and he brings out the folk writing well in the Larghetto. If the trumpet theme at 5.18 sounds a little static it’s really only in comparison with a titan like Ancerl that we really notice. Everything in Ancerl’s performance is that much more complex and etched. The animation of the rustic music is more sharply profiled, the string phrasing is more affectionate and cantilevered with more delicacy and at a significantly faster tempo Ancerl gives a greater sense of musical direction. Not that Järvi is poor, not at all, just that the movement falls into place more securely and all-embracingly in Ancerl’s hands. In the finale Järvi is exultant and driving and Ancerl full of natural momentum – though the latter’s strings aren’t flattered here by the recording, sounding a bit glassy. I liked Järvi’s Sixth. There’s a fresh air approach and plenty of fluctuating rhetoric in the opening movement. In the Poco allegro second movement Ancerl evinces a taut and invincible control whereas Järvi sounds rather abrupt and is inclined to make less of the contrasts – though they take essentially the same tempo. What really separates them is one of those things you recognise when you hear it – the Czech conductor’s ability to turn corners in lyrical incident. There’s always a sense of tactile life in his conducting. To simplify their final movements rather I’d say that that Ancerl is darker and more uneasy, especially in the stabbing martial moments – and also slightly tauter – whereas Järvi is more romantic and benign. I lean to Ancerl but one can’t deny the Bamberg precision or sense of demonstrable commitment.

So not necessarily a first choice set then. Many will already have adherents for individual symphonies and many of the great recordings (Ancerl’s, Munch’s of the Sixth both commercial and off-air) will be on collectors’ shelves. But for the inquisitive new comer who wants a well documented, brilliantly recorded, excellently played and broadly sympathetic set of readings this Järvi set has many points in its favour. I liked it and I recommend it.

Jonathan Woolf

se also review by Rob Barnett

 



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