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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
The Six Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1942) [36.26]
Symphony No. 2 (1943) [23.45]
Symphony No. 3 (1944) [28.51]
Symphony No. 4 (1945) [33.12]
Symphony No. 5 (1946) [31.05]
Symphony No. 6 Fantaisies Symphoniques (1953) [27.26]
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
scores published by Boosey & Hawkes
rec. 4-7 May 1987 (1-4); 28-20 Mar 1988 (5-6) Dominikanerbau, Bamberg. DDD
3CDs for the price of 2
BIS BIS-CD-1371/1372 [3CDs: 60.52+62.44+59.16]

Martinů's symphonies are products of the New World into which he was catapulted by the spread of Nazi domination across Europe. Their premiere details reflect this with first airings for three in Boston (1, 3 and 6), one in Philadelphia (4), one in Cleveland (3) and only one, No. 5, in Prague. The Fifth was in fact dedicated to the Czech Philharmonic in which he had played during his youth. He seems to have been embraced euphorically by the United States' musical establishment; emphatically not the experience of all refugee composers of the late 1930s into the 1940s.

The symphonies are works of clamant Czech flavour. It is a tribute to the composer that his writing, which in its maturity is hardly ever confusable with any other composer's, helped define Czech musical character. Would it have had such reach and potency without the cruel alembic of isolation? Certainly exile and the homeland's tragic experience of Nazi, then Soviet, invasion chased out the neo-classical desert that crept into many of his Parisian works.

The mood of the works is wide-ranging from the epic of the First through the louring tragedy of the Second, the impacted conflict of the Third with its finale written with the Normandy landings in mind. The glum punctuation of the Third's orchestral piano in the finale deprives the listener of all consolation. Then there is the joyful depth, intelligent optimism, nocturnal chase, radiance and euphoria of the Fourth, the pastoral idylls of the Fifth and the surreal wave-buzzing lambency of the Sixth. The First Symphony is notable in this version for its sinewy, tense, sprung yet pliantly yielding textures lit by piano points. The woodwind sing out in delightful eloquence in Järvi's ‘take’ on Symphony No. 2 (try 00.41 in tr.5 movement 1) and in last movement there is a wonderful sense of release, joy and liberation. The Fourth is slightly less easily flowing than the Turnovsky (Apex) or the Neumann (Supraphon) but in the energised and buoyant finale Järvi captures heart-ease with a great sense of onrushing flood-tide.

Of course you could still buy these CDs separately. Losses and Gains? You save some shelf space with the double width box. You save money (3 for 2). You lose the Martinů and Policka photos on the original booklets as well as the composer's endearing caricatures. A small price to pay. I did a scatter-sampling of comparisons between the original discs CD362, CD363 and CD402 and their counterparts in the new box. I could detect no distinction.

Bis's Bamberg sound is powerful yet with woodwind voices rising fragrantly or with optimistic character. The Bamberg strings do not radiate the last word in luxury though neither are they in any way harsh.

The competition is various. No-one offers all six symphonies for the price of 2CDs. Well, it is true that you could opt for the Naxos/Ukraine/Fagen series but much as it saddens me to say so they are not in the running. Fagen’s Fourth is dreadfully underpowered and earth-bound. There is the 3CD set from Chandos (Bryden Thomson) to consider though it will cost you more than the Bis. I have not heard it so cannot comment on audio and performance values; other commentators have high praise for the set so it might well be worth auditioning. Neumann and the Czech Phil on Supraphon in late analogue is excellent but that box is still at full price. Part cycles include the superbly recorded First, Fourth and Sixth of Bĕlohlávek on Chandos. In the Fourth Symphony stakes the Apex CD (Czech Phil/Martin Turnovsky) complete with 1960s sound, wipes the floor with all the competition.

This Bis box is quite a bargain, well annotated by Stig Jacobsson with good-to-excellent performances and virile sound to match. If anything, and it is the finest of shadings, Järvi accentuates the power rather than the poetry. It really is a very close call though between Neumann and Järvi.


Rob Barnett


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