Martinu turned to composing symphonies only when he
had passed the age of fifty. To some extent this was an opportunity
occasioned by circumstance, since the Symphony No. 1 was commissioned
by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, after the composer
had arrived in the United States from Europe, fleeing the Nazi threat
during the early years of the war.
Having embarked upon his symphonic odyssey, Martinu
found that the genre suited him, and he produced a symphony a year for
the next four years, making five in all. Then he went on to complete
his symphonic collection a few years later with his Sixth.
Arthur Fagen and the Ukraine orchestra recorded the
Third and Fifth symphonies back in 1995, and this issue completes their
Martinu cycle. The results here are rather as they were with previous
issues in the series, which can be summarised as good but not outstanding.
Make no mistake, these performances do give much pleasure, since the
orchestra plays with spirit and discipline, and the recording is truthful.
But neither the playing nor the sound is of the front rank, and collectors
can find greater rewards elsewhere. Best of all, if you can find it,
is the Chandos set with Bryden Thomson conducting the Royal Scottish
National Orchestra; but there are also various recordings by Czech forces,
including some very fine performances conducted by Jiri Behlolavek.
Both the Third and Fifth symphonies have three movements,
and both play for around half an hour. The Third is the more tragic
of the two, possibly because the war was at a darker stage when it was
written. Be that as it may, the music generates an intense drama which
Fagen conveys well. In the final analysis, however, neither the orchestral
playing nor the recorded sound really makes Martinu's powerful conception
blaze with the commitment it can generate.
The Fifth is no less dynamic, but the outlook is more
radiant. Indeed the radiance of his string writing is one of Martinu's
special strengths, and it can certainly be experienced to the full in
this remarkable symphony. Make no mistake, although performances of
Martinu are still few and far between in our concert halls, his music
is direct and approachable and inspired. He is undoubtedly a major symphonist,
and that message comes through loud and clear on this appealing disc.