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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No.4 H305 (1945) [32:19]
Estampes H369 (1958) [17:52]
Le Départ H175A (1929) [11:03]
National Orchestra of Belgium/Walter Weller
rec. Henry Le Boeuf Concert Hall, Brussels, July 2007
FUGA LIBERA FUG531 [61:46]
Experience Classicsonline

Having lived with the sets conducted by Vaclav Neumann and Neeme Järvi for many years now, it is always nice to have one’s ears re-awakened by a new orchestral recording of Martinů, especially one played with as much commitment as on this new Belgian production. 

Martinů’s Fourth Symphony is one of his most luminous scores, and the details in its orchestration benefit greatly from modern digital recording techniques. Well performed and still richly deserving of its place in the catalogue, Neumann’s Supraphon set has nonetheless been surpassed by the best of the more recent releases, in terms of colour and effect if not necessarily in those of performance. This new Fuga Libera recording is highly revealing in this regard, and Walter Weller also has a good sense of where Martinů’s little brush strokes of accompaniment in the percussion and elsewhere should make their mark. The triangle at the end of the first movement is a case in point, ringing out like you never heard it before, and in tune as well. The piano is also an important colour in this spectrum, but there are a few places where it jumps out of the texture a little too freely for my taste – more a marginal issue of recorded balance than an aspect of the performance. It’s nice to hear one of Martinů’s favourite instruments used so effectively and played so well, but to my mind it just splashes a little too far forward on a few occasions. 

Tempi are good throughout this recording, with a fine sense of urgency in the second movement Scherzo, as well as a very brisk Poco allegro finale. If one or two of the inner sections linger perhaps a little too lovingly, then these are at least valid if you take a more pastoral view of these moments. 4:04 into the 2nd movement, in the Moderato second section, the pacing does need either to have more forward momentum or to build or grow in some way. The contrast with the Da capo repeat of the opening later on is more dramatic as a result, but if I were to ride my bike that slowly I would fall off. 

That Largo third movement is one which can take your soul into a new dimension, stretching it beyond and out and back, uplifting the spirit in a poignantly moving elegy. The Belgian strings have been well coached and create a magnificent sonic landscape, with well timed expressive restraint and warmth in equal measure. That crucial moment, with solo strings soaring at 3:10, is one of heartbreaking beauty, and I was delighted to hear the short piano solo reinstated at 4:24, a passage expurgated from other versions for some reason. The fourth and final movement is a rousingly swift conclusion, with the virtuoso abilities of the orchestra flexed to the full. 

Estampes was Martinů’s final orchestral work, and is one of those pieces which seems to re-invent itself s time goes on, as well as being evidence of the composer’s own continuing musical explorations even late in life. Harp, mandolin, and other instrumental colours and combinations make it stand out as entirely different to the symphony, as does Martinů’s economy of means and sometimes almost ascetic pointillism with the orchestra. There are plusher moments of course, but the whole thing has an edgy quality which is brought out well by these Belgian forces. The gently lyrical and moving moods of the second movement are dissuaded from taking too much grip, with brusque interruptions in the central Allegro moderato. The typical Martinů gestures are present in the third and final Poco allegro, but these are again shot through with strangeness – sometimes like a Hollywood film score, sometimes with an intense angularity which can sometimes seem to be bordering on confusion.

My comparison for this work is that of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek on a Supraphon disc released in 1989. The Czech forces have an edge in terms of pungent local colour and depth, with all those gorgeous vibrato-laden horns and clarinets, but Walter Weller’s version stands up fairly well even in a drier acoustic and with marginally less joie de vivre

Le Départ is a substantial symphonic interlude from Martinů’s opera The Three Wishes, and has appeared on disc before, but only the once we are told. This is from the composer’s Parisian period, but departs somewhat from Martinů’s ‘jazz-inspired’ works from this time, having a programmatic, late-romantic feel alongside his acidic ‘fingerprint’ harmonies and sinewy melodic lines. The work is very much of its time however, and the booklet notes correctly identify it as having a family resemblance to works such as Martinů’s Half-Time, and resonances with Honegger’s Pacific 321 and Rugby. The orchestra here gives this piece the full works, and gives the impression of enjoying itself immensely. 

The well chosen cover art of this attractively produced disc is from 1947, and by a Belgian artist called Georges Collignon. Walter Weller once apparently recorded Martinů’s Symphony No.4 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on EMI, but I can find no evidence of this disc’s availability. I find his to be a refreshing view on these works here, and on the strength of this release I hope this team comes up with more. The National Orchestra of Belgium is certainly up to the job of dealing with Martinů’s tricky writing, and I would certainly join the queue for a complete set.

Dominy Clements



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