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It is always good to discover new recordings of Martinů’s symphonies, a sequence all the more remarkable for the short period, in which the first five symphonies were composed. Martinů is one of those composers, who does not always receive his full due. Like Prokofiev and Malcolm Arnold, he seems suspect because of his sheer musical facility. Surely a truly serious composer agonises over his work. The example of Beethoven’s labours has created a Romantic myth about the anguish of the solitary artist. Yet no-one quibbles at the facility of Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart – and Beethoven himself could churn out great music with ease when a commission demanded it. The sadness with Martinů is that, while well-represented on record, not least because of the advocacy of the lamented Jiří Bělohlávek, whose performances, both in the concert hall and on CD, have become for many of us a touchstone for Martinů, these great – and they are great – symphonies are too rarely heard in the concert hall, with the occasional exception of No.6. The danger, of course, when a composer has a champion such as Bělohlávek, is to think that his is the only way such works can be performed. Great pieces of music are endlessly fascinating because different performances emphasise different facets of the music.
Cornelius Meister, with the ORF Orchestra, provides us with a distinctive vision of Martinů’s symphonies. These performances sit very much in the Austro-German traditions of interpretation. Some moments are almost Brahmsian, phrasing is weighty, structure is emphasised. Overall, I was reminded of Otto Klemperer’s recordings of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky, revelatory about their structure, deeply serious, but in no sense a replacement for the character and excitement of Mravinsky.
Meister does not have quite the genius of a Klemperer, but he does carefully reveal the structure of the symphonies, but often misses the detail of individual phrases. Compare the second CD here, with Bělohlávek. Most urgent, generally, is Bělohlávek. His live recordings, on Onyx with the BBC SO, have rhythmic vitality, but also loving attention to individual phrasing. Rhythm matters in these works. In general, Bělohlávek is swifter in his live recording than in his studio performances for Supraphon, even if the BBCSO is not quite so authentically Czech in execution. In Symphony No 3, Bělohlávek takes the initial Allegro poco moderato in 9.05 (Onyx), 9.20 (Supraphon). Meister takes almost eleven minutes, and his pulse feels a fraction too slow. In general, Meister tends to speed up for the finales while being more leisurely in earlier movements. One senses a hint of ‘how symphonies go’ imposed on the music, rather than tempo emerging from the internal emotions and musical sensitivities of the score.
For all that, Cornelius Meister is one of the most interesting of the younger conductors around. I have enjoyed his work, notably his Ein Heldenleben (Capriccio C5208) one of the finest available, and he has a superb rapport with his orchestra. Orchestral playing is very fine in the Martinů.
Notes by Christian Heindl are full and informative, though the translation could be politely described as poor.
Not a first choice for these symphonies, despite the structural insights. For first choice, I would recommend Bělohlávek’s live performances on Onyx for unsurpassable insight. But I would not be without the vital accounts by Bryden Thomson on Chandos, some of the finest of all Martinů recordings. These are truly great symphonies: here they reveal their treasures.