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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 5 (1946) [23:45]
Intermezzo (1950) [9:03]
Oboe Concerto (1955) [15:51]
Estampes (1958) [17:15]
Marion Gibson (oboe)
Louisville Orchestra/Robert S. Whitney
Rec. Louisville, Kentucky, 1953, 1959, 1966, 1980. ADD


The Second World War delivered Martinů to the shores of the USA in the 1940s. His new homeland coupled with home sickness combined to become the invincible spark for his sequence of six symphonies. Celebrity orchestral commissions seemed to flow to him like quicksilver in those days and he delivered brilliantly time and again. The Fifth Symphony rather breaks the mould because it marks the start of a long pause of almost a decade before his final Symphony. It is also a break because the work was written as a tribute to the Czech Philharmonic. The previous four symphonies were all written to eminent American commissions.

Whitney pushes the Louisville players very hard developing a greater velocity and elan than in the other recordings in the catalogue. This is a very swift and invigorating performance even if the orchestra does not sound as graceful and voluptuous as the Czech Phil. The tension is extremely well sustained by Whitney and if the recording is consistently very big and close-up it makes for a vivid experience, the power of which surprised me ... and I thought I knew my Martinů symphonies. A shadow of hardness and the still gripping single dimension of the recording are the only slight demerits. Serious Martinů enthusiasts should hear this.

The brilliantly picaresque Intermezzo was written in 1950 and premiered with the Louisville Orchestra during a rare outing to Carnegie Hall. It is a ragingly active piece with Martinů’s usual hallmarks in evidence including the use of the orchestral piano for nervy ostinato work. This recording was made in 1953.

All but the Oboe Concerto in this anthology were conducted by Robert Whitney. The Concerto is conducted by the orchestra’s concert-master. It is surely the most recorded of all the Martinů concertos. It is certainly his most engaging and approachable. Two beguiling folksong-inflected and almost Dvořákian outer movements enclose a long middle movement which is both chaste and cool and in which the orchestral piano provides atmosphere. That central movement, in its softened shudders, recalls a work on which Martinů was at work at the same time: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Marion Gibson makes an ideal soloist - good at the ambivalent moods of the second movement as well as the open-hearted energy and charm of the outer ones.

The three Estampes are three pictures of Switzerland or so the composer tells us. But these are not corny postcards. This work is of great interest as it is Martinů’s last major purely orchestral work. The mood is changeable with an effervescence typical of high-tide Martinů mixed with a misty and lichen-hung dreaminess. In the finale the piano makes its presence known, busy and assertive, while the orchestra bubbles like a landscape coming alive in spring; at times redolent of Ravel, at others of Stravinsky and at others of Copland.

Both the Intermezzo and Estampes were Louisville commissions and both are recorded here in mono. The Symphony and Concerto are in stereo..

A disc essential to Martinů enthusiasts worldwide and an indispensable perspective of Martinů’s American years - just as much as Munch’s Boston Martinů 6.

Rob Barnett

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