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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Overture for orchestra, H345 (1953) [6:42]
Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H352 (1955) [18:20]
The Rock - Symphonic Prelude, H363 (1957) [10:20]
The Parables, H367 (1957) [20:04]
Estampes, H369 (1958) [16:48]
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tomáš Netopil
rec. January-May 2021, Studio 1, Czech Radio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU42952 [72:34]

Ever since the days of the long-player Supraphon have carried the Martinů flag. They were not the only label to do so, but they were in the vanguard - leading from the front and in quantity. My initiation into one of the works here (Les Fresques) can be put down to an Supraphon LP (Czech Philharmonic/Karel Ančerl, SUAST50008) I bought secondhand from a now long-gone shop on Bristol’s Gloucester Road. It was another Supraphon record that made me a fully convinced fan of Martinů’s music: his Fourth Symphony with the Czech Philharmonic and Martin Turnovsky (SUAST50669). That LP was very faithfully transferred to CD on Warner Apex. It’s still one of the greatest pieces of advocacy for the Martinů cause. Potential converts (or sceptics) should seek it out.

The present joint project with Czech Radio nets together five orchestral works from the composer’s days in the USA (1941-53) and Europe (1953-59); the last decade of his life. These works were written after the decade in which six symphonies emerged into the daylight (1942-1953). The music is gathered in chronological order under one of Prague’s most inspired orchestras. It is conducted by a music director who stands in the line of Ančerl, Neumann and Bělohlávek and who has gone for Martinů immersion (Ariane, Bouquet). There’s no direct competition - past or present - for this disc’s programme and it’s a useful and attractive one. To Netopil’s credit, this disc channels the composer’s self-declaratory DNA which strides fluently through each of these works.

The stately and determined little Overture has a slightly Handelian or Tippett-like touch. That said, the composer soon lets us know that his hand is on the tiller. The wind music is typical yet often surprises (2:51). There is a ‘Christmassy’ or ‘fantasia-concertante’ feel to much of this. The orchestra is to be praised for bringing these aspects to one of Martinů’s comparatively little heard scores.

The first of the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca bustles seraphically. It positively swells and buzzes with blessed activity; that this is conveyed by these artists speaks highly of their attention to both mood and detail. Occasionally resembling, in sound, the start of the Sixth Symphony, a holy confidence and contentment suffuses the second fresco. This, despite the Adagio marking, shivers and shimmers with energy. The final Poco Allegro clears the decks for some potent majestic music at times in the manner of RVW’s Sixth Symphony and frequently achieves a wonderfully strong calm. This is one of the Martinů’s finest works.

The Rock (single movement) refers to Plymouth Rock which is, by tradition, the landing place of the Pilgrim Fathers on America’s East coast. This work embodies a shining nobility and in its last pages reflects bubbling excitement. It seems to speak of a hope that the pilgrims had for the future and the orchestra convey this aspect vividly. This perhaps echoes the emotions of Martinů - himself a refugee - when he first arrived in the USA. For me it has always seemed a companion piece to the earlier ‘tone poem’ Thunderbolt P-47 (1945) which perhaps parallels Walton’s Prelude and Spitfire Fugue written only three years earlier.

The contemplative Parables alternate reflection and anxiety; this is quite a skill, as demonstrated with fidelity by Netopil and this radio orchestra. They begin with ‘The Parable of a Sculpture’ which is predominantly an Andante Pastorale. ‘The Garden Parable’ is marked Poco moderato and blends elements of a peaceful idyll with an evocation of dark clouds just over the horizon. The orchestra paints these aural pictures with tender force. ‘The Parable of a Labyrinth’ finale is a bristling Poco allegro. It is reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony written a decade or so earlier but the urgent sighing of the violins (2:51) introduces a freshening element, as do the woodwind’s pastoral dances at 3:42.

Estampes is the composer’s last orchestral work. It is in three movements just like the Frescoes and the Parables. The first movement has some lacily impressionistic moments - clearly a skill, as well as the sort of grandeur found in the Overture. There’s also the typical frenetic stabbing figuration, and a feathering of sharply interjected piano impacts effects which are appositely rendered here … and with some force. An introspectively spun second movement paves the way for a five-minute finale in a reading that exhales confidence and the sort of triumph heard in the Fourth Symphony’s vertiginous finale. The Estampes was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra and Robert Whitney - a partnership that gave birth to many works and many recordings on the orchestra’s label, as resurrected by Matthew Walters’ First Edition CD series in the mid-2000s.

The music - and the artists’ making of it - is confident and imaginative. A familiar name (Jiři Gemrot) is in charge of the well-judged recording. The liner-notes, which more than adequately cover the territory in detail, are in English, German, French and Czech. The author is Jaroslav Mihule. Praise too is due to the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation for financially supporting this project.

Rob Barnett

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