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At Munich in March 2017 Cornelius Meister conducted probably the finest concert I have ever attended. It was a Bayerisches Staatsorchester Akademiekonzerte at Nationaltheater. Meister was presiding over a programme of David Philip Hefti’s ‘Changements’, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Richard Strauss’ ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’(review). Now Cornelius Meister with ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (Vienna RSO), has turned his attention to the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů, recording them in live performances from Konzerthaus, Vienna. Meister has been principal conductor and artistic director of Vienna RSO since 2010.
I first encountered Martinů’s symphonies with Václav Neumann conducting the Czech PO with earthy performances of verve, recorded in 1976-78 at Dvorák Hall Prague on Supraphon. More recently I have enjoyed the appealing set from Jiri Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) recorded in 2009-10 at Barbican Hall, London on Onyx. For this Meister review, as a direct comparison I have been listening to the Belohlávek set.
A prolific composer of over four hundred works, Martinů’s foremost legacy, in my view, is his group of six symphonies written over a twelve-year period between 1942 and 1954. It comes as no surprise that Martinů should be attracted to the genre of the symphony as he was an orchestral musician himself, playing second violin in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra during the period 1918-23.
In 1941, blacklisted by the Nazis, Martinů fled via France, arriving in New York for a new life in America where in the period 1942–46 he composed the first five of his six symphonies. Quickly written in 1942, the First Symphony was a commission for large orchestra by Serge Koussevitzky in memory of his late wife Natalie and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra the same year at Boston, USA. Musicologist Mark Morris describes the four-movement score as the most classical of the symphonies in structure. The mood of the opening movement feels slightly less icy-cold than Belohlávek, with Meister communicating a feeling of longing, of a rather searching character. Upbeat and energetic in the Scherzo, Meister provides a more raucous feel than Belohlávek, rather like a depiction of a visiting circus. An unnerving sense of uncertainly imbues the Largo in the manner of a lament, which is almost certainly influenced by the massacre by Nazis of people in Lidice a Czech village not far from the composer’s birthplace. Compared to Belohlávek, in the Finale Meister displays a more celebratory tone.
Written in 1943 Martinů’s Second Symphony was a commission by the Czech Community in Cleveland, USA to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. The Cleveland Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf introduced the score the same year. Joyful in mood ,with definite Czech colouring, this is sometimes described as his ‘pastoral’ symphony. In four movements it is the most chamber-like of Martinů’s symphonies and his shortest. In the opening movement with its upbeat, fresh outdoor feel, Meister adopts both wider tempi and dynamics than Belohlávek, making more of an impact. Meister is quicker in the Andante moderato and the character he creates is slightly less bucolic. Generally upbeat, jaunty and bright in the Poco Allegro with its martial quality, Meister produces a little more boisterousness. Bustling and breezy in the Finale. Meister creates an increased celebratory temperament expending additional reserves of energy.
Written in 1944 during a summer retreat at Ridgefield, Connecticut the Third Symphony was not a commission but bears a dedication to Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to mark their twenty-five-year partnership. It was the dedicatees who premiered the work at Boston, Massachusetts in 1945. In three movements it’s a darkly lyrical work of considerable drama with a bitter undertow of sadness. In the opening movement, notable for its swirling strings, in Meister’s reading markedly slower than Belohlávek, the conclusion feels cinematic, reminding me of Hollywood movie scores. Developing considerable tension, the playing is extremely determined. A highlight is the mournful Largo with Meister creating a tense, unnerving feel, continually searching. How Meister develops the increase in weight and tempo is masterly. In the Finale, Meister is swifter than Belohlávek providing plenty of restless energy and bite. The Andante section is mysterious, uncertain in deposition. Strangely the three dissonant piano chords that end the work are less bold than in Belohlávek, leaving an ambiguous impression; maybe that was Meister’s intention?
Martinů wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1945 in the USA and dedicated the score to his friends Helen and William Ziegler. Eugene Ormandy conducted the premiere the same year with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Cast in four movements, this lyrical work has a cheerful and positive tone with the spirit of Dvořák never far away. I read that the Fourth is the most performed of Martinů’s symphonies. Written after the end of World War Two in Europe, it’s hard to imagine that the score doesn’t reflect the composer’s feelings and emotions at this momentous event. By turns boisterous, reflective and eerie, yet constantly positive in temperament, in the opening movement Meister’s reading feels fresher with a stirring close and is more vivid in sound. Overall in the Scherzo, Meister takes a more upbeat and rambunctious approach than Belohlávek, ending with a thrilling flourish. With a gentle rustic country dance, the trio is said to evoke Martinů’s Bohemian homeland. Meister takes longer in the Largo, directing exceptional and intense string playing that seems to evoke a star-filled sky on a clear, frosty night. In the incident-packed Finale, Meister obtains a potent energy, generating an optimistic feel and thrilling drama.
Composed in 1946, the Fifth Symphony is dedicated to the Czech Philharmonic, who introduced the score under Rafael Kubelik the following year. The backdrop to the Fifth is Martinů’s disappointment and frustration when his desire to return to Prague did not come to fruition. It’s a challenging, complex three-movement work, of frequently changing shifts between light and dark colours, and disposition. Under Meister, the writing is full of agitation, and unable to settle the opening movement seems almost to depict the composer virtually yelling out in frustration. Streaming determinedly forward, Meister’s reading has discernable focus within the inner conflicts of the writing. Compared to Belohlávek, Meister is a little slower in the Larghetto, another unsettling movement, contrasting passages of frustration and despondency with a cautious optimism. Also perceptible are the pronounced dynamic contrasts that Meister provides, with the highly memorable playing another highlight. The flute solo is both haunting and striking. In the concluding movement, brooding strings develop an aching quality together with an undertow of melancholy. Meister’s conclusion has a rousing, outdoor feel.
In 1953 Martinů left America for France, settling in Nice for a time before returning in 1955. Begun in 1951 and originally given the working title of ‘New Fantastic Symphony’ the Sixth was completed two years later and is known as ‘Fantaisies Symphoniques’. Revised by Martinů prior to its introduction in 1955, the score bears a dedication to Charles Munch who conducted the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Markedly, the three movement Sixth calls for the smallest forces in any of Martinů’s symphonies and is the only one to not to include a piano part, which is prominent in the first five. The Straussian feel to the opening movement is striking, reminding me of Also sprach Zarathustra. Martinů’s dramatic, rather cinematic feel evokes the score to a Hollywood blockbuster and I wonder if composer John T. Williams might have known this symphony. Here Meister presides over glorious playing of invigorating energy. The ebullient Scherzo has a strong fantasy element, with a scurrying, swirling quality (so typical of Martinů’s symphonies) being repeatedly encountered. After the boisterous energy of the Scherzo, the engaging concluding movement (Lento) comes as a welcome relief. Containing writing infused with sadness and reflection there is a lovely central passage for woodwind featuring a Coplandesque clarinet. Martinů ends his cycle of symphonies calmly, on an equivocal note.
In the hands of Meister and Vienna RSO these performances of the Martinů six symphonies feel like a labour of love, as if relishing every note, the conductor able to mould them intuitively into a coherent whole. In the First Symphony I soon noticed that under Meister, the Vienna RSO plays with a warm, rich late-Romantic sound especially noticeable in the strings with a glowing tone, whilst under Belohlávek the BBC SO has a more classical sound. Meister palpably generates considerable tension in his readings and the playing, full of rhythmic energy, is never less than steadfast, whilst shaping phrases that give consideration to every nuance. In complete control Meister generally adopts both wider tempi and dynamics than Belohlávek, and with their additional reserves of vitality the Vienna RSO performances produce a far superior impact. Since Belohlávek released his set in 2011 I have been very content with his worthy accounts; nevertheless, the additional satisfaction and engagement I obtain from Meister’s penetrating readings are quite marked. Captured in spectacular sound, the dedicated playing of the Vienna RSO has striking musical qualities and makes a tremendous impression. Recorded live at Vienna Konzerthaus, Meister’s orchestra is miked a little closer than Belohlávek also having the advantage of improved sound which is crystal clear, exposing a splendid amount of orchestral detail and most satisfyingly balanced too. I notice that audience applause has been removed. Christian Heindl’s booklet essay ‘Six Symphonies from the New World’ is well written, providing helpful information.
With ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister in spectacular form I can’t praise this set highly enough.