> MARTINU Symphonies 3,5 8553350 [JF]: Classical CD Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 3 (1944)
Symphony No. 5 (1948)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Arthur Fagen
Recorded 10-15 March 1995 Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of the Ukraine, Kiev.
NAXOS 8.553350 [60.31]


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I often wonder how it is that someone can reach their fifth decade of life and have failed to discover a vital strand of music. Now I know that we cannot be enthusiasts of all kinds of music. There are precious few people who are as at home with early music as they are with aleatory music. Perhaps there is always going to be a Wagner/Brahms dichotomy. Yet it still feels strange that after 35 years of fairly consistent listening to classical music, and not only consistent but also exploratory, I have never consciously heard a symphony by Martinů. This is as true of the concert hall as the radio or the CD player. There has been no attempt on my part to avoid this Czech composer. It is just one of the facts of my life.

Having listened to this CD I have to state two things. Firstly, I recognise that in Martinů we have a fine symphonist – one that deserves to be recognised widely as such. The second fact is that I have a lot of work to do. I do not dislike the music; it is simply that it does not immediately appeal to me. I know it is good and realise that I ought to work at its appreciation. There is enough there to make me want to like it; and that surely is a fine thing.

The bottom line for the understanding of the music of Bohuslav Martinů is an appreciation of his success in amalgamating the traditions of his native Bohemia with the prevailing trends in Western music and also a degree of Americanisation.

It important to give a thumbnail sketch of his life and works so that this tension and its resolution may be better appreciated.

The composer was born in the town of Politska in Eastern Bohemia in 1890. His father was a cobbler and town watchman but was wise enough to allow his son to study at the Prague Conservatory. However the young Martinů was a bit of a rebel – he did not take kindly to the discipline of the college and was expelled twice.

His musical training was helped immensely by a seventeen-year stay in Paris where he studied with the great Albert Roussel. Martinů’s was no meteoric rise to fame. His music slowly but surely began to heard and therefore known.

His stay in Paris ended in 1940 when he emigrated to the United States. By all accounts it was a sudden decision – Martinů and his wife had only one suitcase between them as they embarked on the ship. Apparently the composer’s name had appeared on a ‘blacklist’ of the Nazi Party.

It is to the United States that we must look if we are to consider Martinů as a symphonist. It was in the relative security of that country that he made his first excursions into the complexities of symphonic form.

The First Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and was first heard in 1942. This is no youthful excursion into the form – for the composer was 52 years old at the time.

One of the problems in digesting Martinů’s music is the sheer quantity of it. He produced music in all forms: ten operas, ten ballets, choral works, chamber music, including five string quartets and of course six symphonies. It is probably fair to say that his output could be described as excellent and indifferent. It needs to be sifted; and like many composers he does not benefit from trying to make a complete CD collection of the entire corpus!

Martinů was somewhat eclectic in his style. He came to maturity in Paris and therefore reflected much that was current between the wars in that country. He had a definite neo-classical streak in his writing. However as the composer matured he enjoyed writing music in a more romantic vein.

The Third and the Fifth Symphonies were both composed during Martinů’s American sojourn. The Third was dedicated to Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for their twentieth anniversary. The composer has put it on record that Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was the model. This work was written at a time when Martinů was under some considerable stress and this shows in this work. The piece was conceived after the massacre at Lidice so there is a considerable emotional intensity. The first two movements have a dark quality to them. Yet it is in the last movement that the light is finally seen.

The Fifth Symphony is a lighter work. For one thing it was composed after the war. It comes at a time when Czechoslovakia was liberated and before the Iron Curtain fell across Europe. This is much more romantic in style and is perhaps more approachable than the Third Symphony. The second movement, a larghetto, is particularly attractive, both in its thematic material and its orchestration. Yet it is the last movement that carries it for me. An almost Barber-like opening leads into an Allegro section that has images of the composer’s sojourn in the United States. This movement alone is a masterpiece of orchestral and symphonic writing.

It is encouraging that Naxos has issued the last in the series of Martinů symphonies, because whether one likes them or not they are key works in the twentieth century symphonic repertoire. I have already confessed that these works are new to me and I have not heard them in the Chandos edition with Bryden Thomson and the SNO or the BIS recordings with Neëme Järvi. However to my ear the present recording is a fine place to begin a collection of these works. For one thing the price is right – all six symphonies for just £14.97.

To me the sound quality, the excitement of the playing and the general presentation of this disc is excellent. Perhaps a little more on the programme notes might have been helpful bearing in mind that to most people these works are probably relatively unknown. But perhaps that is being churlish. There is enough information here to give an adequate background to these excellent works.

John France

See also review by Jonathan Woolf


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