Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 4
National SO of the Ukraine/Arthur
rec Kiev 15-18 March 1995
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.