Notes and Editorial Reviews
Best ever? Certainly close.
We can no longer complain about any lack of availability with the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinu. Starting with the same coupling of works from
Karel Ancerl in distinguished mono, my own early reference was long the complete set conducted by
Vaclav Neumann, since supplemented by the Chandos box with Bryden Thomson. I’ve toyed with the set on BIS with
Neeme Järvi but never warmed to it in quite the
same way as some critics, though if there were no others on the planet I could quite happily live with them. Vaclav Neumann’s old Supraphon recordings are still lovely, but returning to them after hearing all the detail given by more recent releases and their sound really does put them out of any serious running. The rather generalised sound-picture puts the winds very far back, and we miss out on far too much of Martinu’s colourful spectrum of orchestration.
Put simply, I would almost give this new Supraphon release straight ‘A’s and then give myself a hard time trying to write a non-critical review, which is more difficult than it seems. For a start the recording is magnificent, full of rich and sparkly detail, Martinu’s nervy piano in the
Symphony No.5 clear but not over-present, percussion needle-sharp but well balanced. The second
Larghetto movement seems to embark at a lower tempo than I’ve been used to, but a comparison of timings shows no anomalies, and the Martinu ‘clock’ ticks with unerring accuracy through the movement with Belohlávek. To be honest, listening ‘blind’ for the first time, without having looked at the label properly, I hadn’t realised that this recording of the
Symphony No.5 is in fact live, and the applause at the end was something of a surprise. It’s a shame that the first thing you hear is some lady shouting what sounds like ‘Jawohl!’, but I can’t blame the audience for their enthusiasm. Listening more carefully there are one or two moments which provide ‘live’ clues. In the first movement of
Symphony No.5 we get a bum note from one of the flutes at 1:51, and the piano gets ahead of the tempo at around 7:18 threatening to make the whole thing fall apart – acoustic clues are as important to the ensemble as the conductor’s baton in this kind of music. He’ll have been buried in his part and not looking properly. There’s also a bum intonation from the oboe at 10:37 in the final
These are all very minor points, and as I say, you’d be hard put to tell it was live just from the recording, there being no audience noise as far as I can tell, just the inspirational fizz of the premier Czech orchestra performing a work which has long been part of its DNA.
Symphony No.5 was written in a time of optimism for Martinu. The war had ended, his career was very much on the ascendant, and while the music isn’t overburdened with ‘happy valley’ joyfulness you sense the feeling of a creative wellspring both through the music and in this moving performance. The
Symphony No.6 on the other hand, written five years or so later, came to life slowly, under clouds of injury, illness and frustration about continued exile from Czechoslovakia. Unusually for Martinu the orchestration lacks a piano, though he had originally planned to use three. The sound, while still full of typical Martinu fingerprints of wind ensemble writing, is darker and stormier than many earlier works, and this brooding weight is felt to full effect in one of the most powerful recordings of the opening
Lento-Allegro I know. It’s a shame that the tempo flags a little during the violin solo at about 06:00, but this is the only very minor blip in an otherwise magnificent performance.
Moving on, the
Poco allegro commences forcefully indeed, the strings and subsequent reed wind oscillations sounding more like a swarm of fearfully menacing insects than I’ve heard before. There are plenty of goose-bump moments in this movement which hadn’t had so much impact on me before hearing this recording. The string glissandi between figures 18 and 19 are brought out impressively for instance, and the study march-like rhythms and brass progressions have a vice like grip, moving to absolute tenderness, and providing the beautiful
Lento opening of the final movement with a perfect context.
These Supraphon discs are presented in a conventional jewel case, but with a tightly fitting cardboard sleeve which can be hard to manage when new. Reviewer’s tip of the day: take another jewel case, fit it carefully behind the one in the sleeve and push it through, one against the other – leaning the second case against your chest, or any other non-slippery surface.
If, like me, you already have big wobbly piles of Martinu symphonies from which to choose, you may be reluctant to invest in still more Martinu symphonies. I would however say that these recordings are some of the best I have ever heard. Bryden Thomson is very good in his Chandos set, but it has to be said that the national ‘sound’ of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is hard to beat in this music, and here they are at their vibrant best. I lament the global homogenisation of orchestral timbre, and the vibrato we used to hear from the Czech horns is no longer much in evidence on this recording. The wind sound is gorgeously penetrating however, and the big Rudolfinum acoustic seems made to give these symphonies their ideal environment. I’ll be looking out for the other albums in this set, but for now taking our leave of Martinu in the final minute of this
Symphony No.6 was never so hard – one of the most moving farewells ever.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Symphonies: No. 5; No. 6, “Fantasies symphoniques”
Ji?í B?lohlávek, cond; Czech PO
SUPRAPHON SU 4007-2 (58:29) Sym 5: Live: Prague 12/2007
Bohuslav Martin?’s first five symphonies were written in quick succession between 1942 and 1946. They are all recognizably the work of the same composer, featuring chugging neoclassical accompaniments, syncopated themes with sprung rhythms, and ecstatic passages using divided violins. Nevertheless, each of the symphonies has a unique flavor of its own, whether it be the lightness of the Second, the rhythmic folksiness of the Fourth, or the heavier drama of the Third.
The Fifth seems to incorporate most of these elements, bringing them together at the close of its long, episodic finale in a kind of summation of the whole symphonic set. The second movement is unusual in that it exudes an atmosphere of uncertainty. A “’til ready” rhythmic figure meanders for much of the time, seemingly uncertain of where it is headed (most atypical for Martin?); at one point a momentary respite occurs, opening out into a passage of major-key sunlight with the trumpet repeating a figure of a rising sixth against soaring strings.
Composed between 1951 and 1953, the Sixth Symphony stands apart. A commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it is one of Martin?’s most colorfully scored works, more in the nature of a concerto for orchestra than a symphony. As the subtitle indicates, it is structured like a shifting kaleidoscope of symphonic moments, unified by the use of a slithering chromatic motif that is repeated and referred to throughout all three movements. While some of Martin?’s music may occasionally suggest he was working on autopilot, that is certainly not the case with the Sixth Symphony; it is a masterpiece, one of the outstanding works of orchestral music of the era.
This new recording seems to be part of a slowly evolving series. The first disc of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 was recorded and released back in 2003. The First and Second symphonies are yet to appear. Everything about these performances is beautiful: Textures are beautifully balanced, the recording is beautifully clear, and the musicians themselves make beautiful sounds. The whole production is supremely polished. That is not to accuse Ji?í B?lohlávek of being uninvolved or sluggish; rhythms are pointed, momentum generally maintained, and there is much to admire—even love—in these performances. In the preparation of this review I listened to them many times, and my admiration for them continues to grow.
However (you saw that coming, didn’t you?), there is fierce competition in this particular coupling from a Supraphon issue of performances from the 1950s by an older Czech Philharmonic under Karel An?erl. The composer’s contemporary and champion, An?erl brought more than a professional commitment to the notes; these scores meant something personal to him, and you can sense it in the playing. To give two examples: In the passage from the Fifth that I mentioned above, An?erl’s trumpet blazes like salvation. The passage is radiant, whereas B?lohlávek’s is merely clean. Another instance is the high-lying solo violin passage in the first movement of the Sixth: B?lohlávek’s soloist plays it immaculately—it is a delight to hear such finely centered playing—but An?erl’s soloist brings a plaintive, human quality that breaks the heart. I do not wish to make too much of this comparison, especially as B?lohlávek’s live recording of the Fifth results in a higher level of tension. Lovers of the composer’s distinctive music will want both discs. (The mono sound of An?erl’s recording is more than acceptable.)
Anyone new to Martin? should definitely sample the Sixth in some form. A 1990 recording with B?lohlávek and the same orchestra forms part of an enjoyable mixed program on a Chandos disc, but the new performance is preferable; it is more disciplined and better recorded.
After hearing this CD I replayed the Third and Fourth symphonies; when it is complete, B?lohlávek’s set will be hard to beat.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 5 by Bohuslav Martinu
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1946; USA
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