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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 3 H.299 (1944) [29.07]
Symphony No. 4 H.305 (1945) [33.40]
Czech PO/Jiří Bĕlohlávek
rec. 8-11 Sept 2003, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague. DDD

SUPRAPHON SU 3631-2 031 [63.00]

With this disc Supraphon launch a spanking new series of the Martinů symphonies to compete with Neumann (ADD, Supraphon, excellent but somewhat dated analogue), Flor (BMG-RCA, deleted but surely worth a box reissue), Fagen (Naxos, under-powered), Järvi (Bis, outstanding) and Thomson (Chandos - reputedly good).

The six symphonies are pretty tightly grouped, chronologically speaking, (apart from the sixth). They form the core of Martinů's penultimate period (1940-45). All were written in the USA in refuge from an otherwise murderous fate in Europe. They carry a sharper cargo of nostalgia because they were written in exile and the Third is strong in this respect. Its currency is a warm blend of homesickness and foreboding.

The recording throughout is of startling subtlety and this can be heard to grand but least spectacular effect at the end of the Third Symphony. The admirable spatial image can be heard in the first three minutes of the second movement. Supraphon have captured a surprisingly refined yet vivacious image. Listen to the little orchestral shudders at 1.01 on the right hand channel in the first movement. In the third movement this version comes into its own in honeyed yet uncloying radiance. There is even a bardic piano at 4.03 in the second movement; it is, for all the world, like an interjection from Bax's Symphonic Variations. The slow movement has a time-stilling quality - almost Delian almost Sibelian. The mind’s eye conjures brooks and tributaries, spring bubbling and rivulets coursing.

Bĕlohlávek has recorded the Fourth Symphony twice before. The first version came out on a modestly priced Panton disc (1205 2011). There he conducted Prague Symphony Orchestra in a recording made in the House of Artists in Prague on 24 and 25 June 1979. The coupling was the Fifth Symphony conducted by Otakar Trhlik. I strongly suspect that both were Czech radio tapes licensed for commercial issue and issued AAD. They are fine readings though the comparatively opaque quality might bother the more fastidious.

His exuberant second effort is likely to have made its way into many collections. This is the Chandos recording on CHAN 9138 made on 18 and 19 September 1992. As with the present Supraphon disc the orchestra there was the redoubtable Czech Philharmonic. This might well have become a cycle but the Chandos connection with Bĕlohlávek ended with only symphonies 1, 4 and 6 under the Couzens’ belt. Chandos's high calorie balance is gorgeously plush and not lacking in detail. This time the recording was in DDD but the coupling is not as logical: Field Mass and the Lidice Memorial.

Bĕlohlávek’s timings for No. 4 remain pretty similar. The Panton Fourth: 32.56; Chandos 33.34 as against the 33.40 of Supraphon. The interpretation has both lambency and panache. In this work Martinů shows himself a magician of the orchestra and matches this with luxuriant thematic and rhythmic invention. This is most impressive. The finale’s horn-lofted exuberance is excitingly put across with a tawny ‘burble’ accenting the joyously emphatic pay-off. This compares well with the highly coloured and zestful pioneering version by Martin Turnovsky again with the Czech Phil. The Turnovsky times at 31.51 and remains a reference version if you can take the 1967-8 ADD sound on Warner Apex 0927 49822 2. Ansermet's version with the Suisse Romande orchestra although in mono is extremely good also.

The only really flawed version in the mêlée is that by Arthur Fagen which at 36.02 is flaccid and lacking drive quite apart from being awash in the percussion balance (Naxos 8.553349). I have not heard the Walter Weller version on an old 1975 EMI LP nor the Bryden Thomson on Chandos. The Jarvi on Bis is rip-roaringly good (33.12 on Bis CD1371/1372) but in the last movement short-changes the horn choir in the pay-off energico. Neumann on the old Supraphon 1970s ADD set is excellent. There was to have been a 1980s Neumann digital cycle of the symphonies but only one disc was completed: symphonies 3 and 6 issued in Japan.

Financial support for the present project comes from the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation of Prague.

This recording was made with the benefit of scholarly revisions by Sandra Bergmannová (who also wrote the booklet notes) and Aleš Březina for the Third and Sharon Chloa for the Fourth.

Pushed into choice of the Fourth by itself you have to hear the Turnovsky. At Apex prices it is not a difficult choice and the finale has never been so excitingly recorded as it was for those 1967 sessions. In the finale, a real touchstone for performers and conductors, Turnovsky’s horn section are given a bells-up edgy prominence that has not been equalled though Bĕlohlávek comes close. However if you want to track a complete Martinů set in the best modern sound, go for this one.

All in all this is an auspicious launch for the first fresh cycle of the new century. Supraphon deserve to find a ready and appreciative market as Martinů’s star continues to rise.

Rob Barnett

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