Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Bohuslav MARTINU
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 4
National SO of the Ukraine/Arthur Fagen
rec Kiev 15-18 March 1995
NAXOS 8.553349 [60.59]

There have not been a large number of Martinu symphony cycles. For years enthusiasts had to settle for the various Supraphon recordings of the last three symphonies (Ancerl in 5 and 6) and these were only intermittently available. Of these the luminous Fourth symphony conducted by Martin Turnovsky (Supraphon LP SUAST50669 issued in 1967 and reissued on now deleted Urania US 5165-CD) was the prize. Charles Munch's Sixth (RCA) and Louisville Robert Whitney Five (RCA Gold Label) both seemed somewhat grey to my ears.

In the 1970s Vaclav Neumann recorded all six with the Czech PO and (having heard these again quite recently) these are very well done; heard to much better effect in their CD livery than in their original lacklustre LP format. The LPs also laboured under the disadvantage of presenting numbers 4, 5 and 6 in a less than alluring 2LP box with a disruptive side-break.

Since then there has been the excellent BIS cycle (Bamberg SO) conducted by the versatile Neeme Järvi. Chandos's Bryden Thomson cycle is reputedly worth hearing though some claim it to be unidiomatic; one of these days I will catch up with it. Claus Peter Flor on BMG seems to have fared less well though I have not heard any of those discs. Chandos made a pass at recording the complete cycle having issued Behlolavek in Numbers 1, 4 and 6 (the latter with Janacek and Suk). The three Chandos discs are very strong contenders. Isolated discs from other quarters include an extremely well thought of recording of No 4 by Behlolavek with the Prague SO coupled on Panton 81 1205-2 with a slightly less wonderful version of No 5 from Otakar Trhlik with the Ostrava Janacek orchestra. I must track down this disc at some stage. Cascavelle have Ansermet conducting No 4 with the Suisse Romande; a fine mono version coupled with the Parables and Frescoes.

Naxos are constant in their commitment allowing for the fact that they can be somewhat slow. While at one extreme their Malcolm Arnold cycle seems to have halted (perhaps in light of the various competing cycles: Conifer, Chandos) at the other the Bax symphonies (extremely well received) have virtually 'poured' out at the rate of one every six to eight months. Other cycles are issued at a much slower rate. The Martinu cycle is one of these.

Naxos have already issued the first of three discs (Symphonies 1 and 6). I have not heard that initial disc - this is the first experience I have of the cycle. On this evidence they are good but not outstanding. As a work I rate the Fourth very highly for its luminous quality, its snappy rhythmic interest, its romance, its great-hearted quality and its implicit rejection of neo-classical austerity. For me the Ukrainian orchestra and by association Fagen do not convey a sharply enough etched rhythmic edge. Crackling precision is not consistently delivered although the start of the third movement is an exception. The Fagen version is good at the plangent depths but these are yet more splendidly delivered in the Chandos version. The darker second symphony is handled extremely well although again the rhythmic edges when viewed up close are less sharply defined giving a softer focus than I would expect. These are matters of very fine gradation not dramatic difference.

The performances do not lack for visceral charge and this disc remains a good choice for budget purchase. However in the case of No. 4 (crucial to the cycle) better can be achieved from Neumann, Järvi and Behlolavek.

A good bargain price CD though not outstanding. Martinu hunters will want to hear it and as with most alternative recordings you will certainly learn more about these works from the Naxos.

Rob Barnett

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store Concert and Show tickets
Musicians accessories
Click here to visit