Karel Ančerl (1908-1973)
was a very fine conductor but I’m not sure he has always received
due acknowledgement. One reason for this may well be the intermittent
availability of Supraphon recordings in the West. As this CD shows, his
partnership with the Czech Philharmonic, of which he was successively
Principal or Chief Conductor between 1950 and 1968, was a formidable one.
This generously filled programme comprises music by Martinů
in recordings made in the heyday of that partnership.
Ančerl directs a
finely detailed and grave account of Memorial to Lidice
(1943), Martinů's eloquent elegy to the victims of a Nazi atrocity
in the town of Lidice. It is one of the composer’s finest utterances
and here receives a performance which is wholly worthy of it.
The Frescos (1956)
is one of Martinů's most winning scores. The music is of considerable
richness and invention, teeming with detail and skilfully orchestrated.
The luminous sonorities are extremely well realised in this performance.
Ančerl displays both a keen ear for the constantly shifting textures
and an acute sense of rhythm. This is a marvellous account of this vibrant,
colourful score and it is played with great intensity by the
CPO. (How refreshing it is to hear once again the distinctive tang of
their woodwind and the even more characteristic vibrant tone of the
east European brass players: it suits this music so well.) The second
part of the triptych, depicting the Dream of Constantine, is, I think,
particularly fine with some wonderfully eloquent playing from the richly
toned, well-nourished string section.
The Parables (1958-9) is a very late work. The
eponymous parables are not of the biblical variety. The first two, ‘Parable
of a sculptor’ and ‘Parable of a garden’ are inspired by passages from
The Citadel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The third, ‘Parable
of a Labyrinth’ takes for its inspiration words from the play Theseus’
Voyage by Georges Neveux (all the relevant texts are printed in
By the time he wrote this
work Martinů was mortally ill and much of the music seems to me
to be imbued with a sense of valedictory ecstasy. To be truthful, the
words which fired Martinů's imagination are somewhat allusive and,
particularly when one reads them shorn of their literary context, it’s
far from easy to grasp the meaning behind them, still less to relate
them to the music. However, Martinů’s pieces can be enjoyed on
their own merits, I think, and they seem to me to be
performed here with authority and conviction. The CzPO was a very fine
band at this period and they serve Martinů well.
The most substantial single
work on the disc is the Fifth Symphony (1946). As it happens, a much
later, live performance by Ančerl has just been released in the
excellent volume of EMI’s Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century
series (a mandatory purchase for Ančerl's admirers). This later
performance was given in 1971 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose
Chief Conductor Ančerl was
from 1968 until his death. The Czech account is much more expansive
than the Toronto reading; in Toronto Ančerl took just over 27 minutes.
This CzPO performance was, I suspect, the first recording
of the work. Perhaps that accounts for the extra degree of electricity.
Certainly, as compared with the Toronto recording I find much more tension
in the slow introduction to the first movement and there seems to be
more of a sense of release and joy when the main allegro arrives (track
1, 1’54"). Thereafter, in the Czech performance there is an abundance
of athleticism and freshness, not quite matched in Toronto, as the movement
The second movement, which seems almost to begin in
mid-sentence, is marked Larghetto. The Czech performance is marginally
slower and more closely equates to what I understand by that marking.
The important flute solo, for instance (track 2, 0’59") is not
appreciably slower than in Toronto but the player just seems to have
that little bit extra time for the long phrases (that, of course, may
well be as much due to the skill of the Czech flautist as it is to Ančerl's
pacing.) Ančerl builds the movement purposefully to its strong
but lyrical central climax (track 2., 4’12”). This is followed by a
passage dominated by a solo trumpet (4’38” to 5’31”) which might almost
have been written by Copland – the symphony was written
in America – and I love the silvery, open tone of the Czech trumpeter,
which seems to convey an impression of nostalgia and of the open-air
It is in the finale where
I think this earlier reading is most to be preferred to Ančerl’s
later account. The largo introduction is well played by the Toronto
musicians but the CzPO, at a broader tempo, not only dig into the notes
more, they also dig behind them. The result is a taut, searching
passage of great intensity. Timings don’t always tell the full story
but I think it’s significant that in 1971 Ančerl
took 2’54” for this section whereas in 1955 he stretched the music to
3’57” and, to my ears, attained greater depth as a result. In the main
allegro, too, there seems just a fraction more space around
the notes and a heightened sense of exaltation in the Czech performance.
I think there are two other factors which weigh in
favour of this Czech recording over the Toronto account. Firstly the
sound, though it has some limitations – not serious, in my view – and
is more resonant is actually more open and pleasant to listen to, I
find. Secondly, though the Toronto orchestra plays well enough the CzPO,
admittedly recorded under studio conditions, are in a different class.
This, I think, is definitely the Ančerl
version of this symphony to have.
This, then, is a first
rate anthology of Martinů orchestral works. All the performances
are top class. It seems to me that these Czech musicians had a fervour
to communicate the music of their native land in the same way that characterised,
say, the 1950s Danish recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies. Ančerl’s
interpretations strike me as being completely natural and authoritative.
The sound is perfectly adequate and the notes are serviceable though
the English translations are a trifle clumsy.
Admirers of Martinů’s music are strongly advised
to snap up this CD while it remains available. I highly recommend this