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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No.6 ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’ (1951-3)
Three Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1954-5)
Orchestral suite ‘Julietta’ (1937)
Symphony Orchestra St.Gallen/Jiři Kout

Recorded at the Tonhalle St.Gallen, Switzerland, June 2003 (Symphony, Julietta) and March 2004 (Frescoes)
ARTE NOVA 82876 57740-2 [63’17]

This super-budget Martinů release is very welcome, as much for the inventive programming as for the playing and recording, which luckily are both excellent.

The Sixth Symphony has plenty of first-class rivals in the catalogue, my own benchmark being from the superb BIS cycle by Neeme Järvi and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. There are also fine versions from Václav Neumann and Jiři Bĕlohlávek, who both have at their disposal the supple and ‘authentic’ Czech Philharmonic. I also like Bĕlohlávek’s interesting couplings of other Czech music, namely the Janáček Sinfonietta and Suk Fantastic Scherzo, all beautifully recorded on Chandos.

But this new Arte Nova disc trumps them all in a way. Neither of the fillers here are exactly thick on the ground, yet at least one is an outright masterpiece. The Three Frescoes are vintage, mature Martinů and well loved among his admirers, yet this new disc virtually has the field to itself as a modern digital recording. Yes, there is the vintage Ančerl version, wonderfully coupled with the Fifth Symphony and Memorial to Lidice, in many ways the ideal Martinů disc for a new collector. However the sound of that Supraphon is showing its age, and music of such colour and variety really benefits from an open, modern recording. There is also a BIS disc from James de Preist which I have not heard, and is certainly full price. With this background one really has to welcome the present release.

To return to the Sixth Symphony, we find the Prague-born conductor Jiři Kout and his Swiss orchestra on excellent form, characterful and responsive to the mood-shifts and originality of this music. In that wonderfully evocative opening, with its swirling textures sounding like a Bartókian swarm of insects, Kout allows the single trumpet note to emerge with more clarity than Järvi, and he adopts a distinctly more relaxed tempo. Overall in the movement I feel Järvi’s brisker, tighter hold pays more dividends, but Kout’s handling does reveal more detail. The lovely folksy tune at 3’20, so Tippett-like, emerges with unruffled happiness, and the quirky little passage for percussion and solo violin (5’56) has just the right mixture of charm and mystery.

The ‘swarm of bees’ gets even more agitated at the start of the second movement, and the orchestra copes well with the demandingly high string writing, first and second violins divided left and right to produce effective antiphonal interplay. Järvi judges the chorale-like close to the Symphony slightly better than Kout, and his wind section are slightly more disciplined, but this Arte Nova performance must certainly be judged a success overall.

One can hear immediately that the Frescoes come from the same pen and period. The opening is not dissimilar with block dissonances replacing the whirlwind of sound in the Symphony. The feeling of contrasting colours and a bold fantasy element obviously comes from the same fertile imagination. Martinů began sketches after seeing the famous eight frescoes in the Franciscan church in Arezzo, ending up with a three-movement structure that mirrors the tripartite form of the Symphony. He never intended them to be programmatic, rather a ‘lyrical meditation that breathes calm and colour’, as he put it. The first movement subject is the depiction of Solomon and Sheba, vividly realised in music of great atmosphere and Ravelian colour. The second is based on a representation of Emperor Constantine, who dreamt of a victorious cross. Again, atmosphere is all, with echoes of Nielsen’s wind writing occasionally drifting through the texture. The third movement, which Martinů intended to summarize his whole impression of the frescoes, starts straight out of middle-period Stravinsky but ends with long-breathed chords that bring to mind once again the Sixth Symphony. If you don’t know this piece, grab this disc and get to know it!

The little 15-minute orchestral suite from the opera ‘Julietta’ is not new to the catalogue, but is not common and makes an entirely apt extra. It is thought to be the composer’s favourite opera (he quotes part of it in the Sixth Symphony), so a concert version was always a good idea. In the end, it was not Martinů who undertook this but a conductor colleague, Zbynĕk Vostřák. I can’t claim to know the opera, but this nicely balanced three-movement suite is very enjoyable, with recognisable watermarks of the composer cropping up regularly, even though this is from his earlier Parisian period. Yes, there are shades of other composers (how could there not be in a piece from 1930s Paris?) but this is very likeable and sits perfectly with its weightier partners.

All in all, this is excellent stuff, even if it may not displace your existing favourites. The recording is rich and full, and it’s very difficult to find any real fault with the conducting or playing, short of ridiculous nitpicking. The notes are brief but adequate. A super-budget winner.

Tony Haywood

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