Bohuslav MARTINů (1890-1959)
The Six Symphonies: No. 1 (1942) [36.48]; No. 2 (1943) [24.59]; No. 3 (1944) [30.25]; No. 4 (1945) [33.49]; No. 5 (1946) [27.33]; No. 6 Fantaisies Symphoniques (1953) [28.33]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiri Belohlávek
rec. BBC recordings: October 2009 – May 2010, Barbican Hall, London. DDD
ONYX 4061 [3 CDs: 61.47 + 64.14 + 56.06]
The BBCSO and Belohlávek enter a crowded and competitive field with this issue. They are up against the classic recordings of Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic to begin with, plus a startlingly cheap and good set on BIS by the Bamberg Orchestra and Järvi to name just two. What it comes down to is first whether these performances offer anything to place them at the front of the field, because the price is higher than most other issues, and second why should you buy a set of symphonies you probably do not know? Let me deal with the second question first. The reason you should buy all the Martinů Symphonies is because they are each amongst the best symphonies written by anyone in the entire 20th century. They measure up to Stravinsky, Nielsen, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Prokofiev and are not found wanting in any respect. They are original and they span a wide range of structures and emotions. They have tunes, drama and coherence. In performance they are absolutely thrilling. None of the six is an early work because Martinů didn't write a symphony until he was over 50 so the listener does not have to tolerate early experiments. The reason they are not yet part of the regular repertoire is just happenstance. Fifty years ago Mahler was hardly ever played, Nielsen was just a name and Sibelius was mistrusted. So it goes.
Few conductors can claim more right to record this set than Jiri Belohlávek. He has recorded most of the symphonies multiple times with Czech forces. This series with the BBC Symphony was recorded at the Barbican during his cycle for Radio 3. Your reviewer was present for them all and can vouch for the excitement in the hall before and after each. He can vouch for newcomers to Martinů going away converted having attended for some other part of the programme and never having heard a note of the composer's music. The BBC orchestra played superbly and showed no sign of unfamiliarity even with the much less played 1st and 2nd symphonies. It was one of the great concert series and well worth the 6 times 180 mile round trip.
The engineers were using the usual microphone tree for stereo pick-up plus a large number of microphones spread around the orchestra to make sure the listener at home didn't miss anything, and that is what has degraded these CDs to technical ordinariness. I would not say mediocrity because that has more negative implications than I intend, but these are not special recordings. This is not how the orchestra sounded from the best central stalls seat I occupied. The terracing of the instrumental forces from front to back has gone. The woodwind was not this prominent and I suspect the percussion was more prominent. It is merely OK. The main competition has to be the classic Supraphon set from Neumann issued originally on vinyl many years ago and the bargain price set on BIS. I have to agree with Rob Barnett that Järvi's set is extremely competitive. It is most certainly the best recorded. Neumann is very convincing and spaciously recorded in good analogue sound but the CD transfer is rather unkind to the ears. The Onyx set is very good but I would go for the BIS unless, like me, you would prefer to own several sets, or if you particularly want the latest editions of the scores, which I assume Belohlávek uses, though Mike Crump's interesting notes do not specify that he does.
Authentic performances decently recorded.
And a further review of this set by Rob Barnett
None of Martinů's six symphonies is an early work. They were all written after the move to the USA fleeing flight from a Europe that might well have been fatal for Martinů and his family had he stayed. The post-war regime in Czechoslovakia was another barrier to return to his homeland.
The First Symphony here is very idiomatic. How the conductor extracts the same intrinsic sound as the 1960s Czech PO from the BBCSO we do not know. The effervescence and sheer bounce and lighter than air propulsive drive is remarkable. The second movement is a triumph of eager acceleration. The finale chatters anxiously. It is a precursor to the pacy and sprinting exuberance of the Fourth Symphony.
Belohlávek favours a more generously paced and romantic sighing susurration for the Second Symphony. Its third movement recalls a clattering donkey puppet suddenly becoming flowingly articulated as the great melody is unleashed. The song flies over the rush-hour excitement of the orchestra decorated with Martinů’s trademark piano. The Second Symphony is one of his most underrated works; well worth starting there.
The Second and Third strike me as counterparts to Sibelius 3 and 6. Belohlávek does not stint on excitement in the Third Symphony - listen to how he quickens the pulse for the first movement at 1:47 then emboldens the whipped-up clamour in the finale (III).
The Fourth is taken with considerable deliberation in the first movement. The upwardly mobile strings are allowed to soar steadily and progress can be a mite tired at the end. Any fatigue evaporates for the ruthless urgency of the Allegro Vivo (II). The Largo is sweetly rounded but the initial brass gesture seems unsatisfactorily resolved into the overall canvas. That said as a fresh approach it certainly fascinates. Back to bustle, mystery, motile power for the finale of this Martinů's most wonderful symphony. The movement shifts constantly from broad expansive hymn to kinetically triumphant drive. It's not as bright-eyed and full-on as the classic Turnovsky from the 1960s but when the BBCSO horns hit out (7:04) you really know about it.
The Fifth Symphony, like the Third and Sixth is in three movements. Belohlávek captures its mysteries better than anyone else. He knows its metronomic clicks, its echoes of The Rite (I 1:15) and its Beethovenian potency.
There was quite a gap between 5 and 6 and we are in the mid-1950s by the time we reach this last symphony with its beckoning insect buzz. It could have sounded avant-garde but no such thing. The bubbling power of the great themes prevents that happening. Strangely, several sections recall RVW's Ninth Symphony though that lay in the future at the time Martinů was writing.
The set is presented neatly in a four-fold card casing complete with a concise booklet that fits into the pocket of the first of the four folded segments.
Belohlávek's set is important and overtakes in terms of completeness the two discs he recorded with Supraphon (review review). Who else has such a track record of Martinů performances? Importance and pleasure are not the same yet these three discs make for good listening. For the best of the symphonies I would still opt for Turnovsky's Fourth. No Martinů collection would be complete without having that 1960s Turnovsky recording (Warner Apex); it’s that good. For the most affluent sound opt for Belohlávek on three Chandos CDs where the only symphonies featured are 1 (CHAN8950), 4 (CHAN9138) and 6 (CHAN8897). As a set I still like Järvi on Bis and Brilliant and Thomson on Chandos. Valek has had a bad press though I would still like to hear that set to make my own appraisal. Fagen on Naxos is not special enough and often runs on thin under-energised gruel. This very impressive Onyx entry is well worth your attention though the handsome sound image is neither as sumptuous nor as analytical as I would ideally have wanted.
There’s a brief but valuable liner-note from Michael Crump whose book on the symphonies from Toccata Press is well worth reading while hearing the symphonies. The notes are in English with German and French translations.
The comparative avalanche of Martinů recordings unleashed two years ago around the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death has injected fresh life into this part of the catalogue. Too often however these birth/death splurges simply go to underscore longer term neglect – a huge exposure followed by a vertiginous fall back even deeper into obscurity. We must hope that Martinů’s star has a sustainable higher profile. This set shows that his music has all the necessary stamina and allure.
This set shows that his music has all the necessary stamina and allure.