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Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Symphonies 3 and 5
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Arthur Fagen
Recorded March 1995 Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, Kiev
NAXOS 8.553350 [60.31]


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This is the final release in Naxos’ Martinu Symphonic cycle and the first I’ve heard. It’s excellent news that an inexpensive series exists – the Martinu discography is notoriously changeable – because this is a body of work that deserves close and consistently involved scrutiny. In the 3rd Symphony I listened to Ancerl’s 1966 Czech Philharmonic broadcast. There is no comparison in sound – Ancerl’s is constricted, somewhat muddied and with a cut treble but one can hear that theirs is a palpably more febrile and spontaneous opening than Fagen – but unlike the Ukrainian performance Ancerl doesn’t show all his structural cards at once and the sense of powerful things being held in reserve is everywhere felt. The Czechs realise the rhythmic attack in the middle of the first movement with perfect tone and unstoppable impetus – the off the beat writing and the bassoon’s winding line are both well brought out by Ancerl, much less well by Fagen – as is the recapitulation of that remorseless, insistent and obsessive opening theme; Ancerl’s climax is really blazing. In the tragic largo Fagen piles on huge dark sonorities – most impressive in its way but emerging as generic and gestural. Nevertheless it’s good to hear the clarity of Martinu’s favoured orchestral piano for once. Fagen’s flautist is straight here with some nice plinking accompaniment whereas Ancerl’s is in the highest Czech tradition – a vocal and personalized colourist who brings out the neo-classical elements embedded in the score. It’s most instructive to contrast the succeeding fugal section; played with sweeping understanding by Ancerl, for Fagen it is more of a romanticised interlude, rather inaptly sitting on the fabric of the music – a syntactical error, I think. The Finale shows equally divergent attitudes. Ancerl takes 9 ½ minutes, Fagen 11 ½. The Czech conductor takes off at a tremendous lick, without breathlessness of attack or smudged articulation; he is vituperative here and evinces consistently more levels of activity and engagement, as differentiated from mere velocity – this is not a matter of speed it’s more a question of structural integrity and tempo relation – at both of which Fagen cannot ultimately compete with Ancerl. The older man gives full rein to Martinu’s voicings in his bustling orchestral rhythms. By comparison Fagen is too fitful, too impassive in the face of the generated tension of Ancerl and insufficiently determined to delineate Martinu’s multifaceted writing.

What is true of the 3rd is truer of the 5th. Ancerl recorded this commercially and it is in good sound. In the first movement he shows a much greater sense of rhythmic impetus and anxious momentum, is crisper and more decisive. He is one minute quicker in the Larghetto – with commanding angularity of string and woodwind writing and he’s also wittier than Fagen. Ancerl shows decisively how Martinu’s neo-classicism can be made to entwine within the weave of the writing and not exist as some technical imposition upon it; his "integrationist" expertise is surely unmatched in this repertoire. Ancerl’s trumpet solo is one of affirmation here as is the bursting into life of the whole orchestra and his violin solo emerges "in the balance" – and not wiry and tremulous as is Fagen’s. Ancerl’s figuration is clearer, Fagen’s rhythms less taut. In the final movement it is Fagen who is distinctly quicker. He employs a subtle range of dynamics here, well caught by the engineers, and is excellent at bringing out the composer’s bluffness, especially in the transition passage to the allegro but there is never quite as much fresh air in his performance as there is in Ancerl’s; it sounds rather more earthbound. String tone, despite recorded quality, is also in the Czechs’ favour – but Fagen ends well, capturing the rather abrupt and disconcerting conclusion with real understanding.

Comparing Ancerl with Fagen is decisively to the former’s advantage but this is not to suggest that Fagen’s is a negligible account. His is a cogent and cohesive traversal of these symphonies – only the very greatest performances could withstand close scrutiny with Ancerl’s and if Fagen falls in this regard then he is in good company. Fagen is a sensitive and sensible guide – these are certainly not shattering accounts but they are more than merely worthwhile.

Jonathan Woolf


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