MARTINŮ Symphonies Nos 1-6
When considering Martinu’s symphonies, two points are worth bearing in mind: first, that all six date from Martinu’s maturity; and second, the first five followed each other year on year. Play them back to back and the inevitable risk is that they may all begin to sound too much alike, but such is Jirí Belohlávek’s skill as a Martinu interpreter that the effect is still of impressive stylistic variety. Brlohlávek usefully offers thumbnail descriptions of all six works, calling the First, “epic, tragic and energetic”, the Second “lyric, poetic and vivid”, the Third “dramatic and Bohemian”, the Fourth “impressionistic, cosmopolitan, colourful and joyful”, the Fifth “visionary”, and the Sixth a “song of longing and hope”.
These are not Belohlávek’s first Martinu symphony recordings but I would assert that they are his best. The others I know of are mostly with the Czech Philharmonic, Nos 1 and 4 from the early ’90s (Chandos), plus a much earlier, bright-and-bushy-tailed Fourth with the Prague Symphony (Panton, 1979) – all good performances, but which lack the weight and muscle of these live BBC remakes. And there are the Supraphon recordings from 2003‑09 of Symphonies Nos 3‑6 which score highest where clarity is most needed, in the finale of the Third, for example, and the opening of the Sixth (the spacious acoustic of the Dvorák Hall of the Rudolfinum helps).
Perhaps the most significant interpretative difference between the Chandos and Onyx versions of the First Symphony is in the profound Largo (one of the great Martinu slow movements), where the later version is broader than its predecessor by more than a minute, though the contrast is less to do with tempo than with the darkened mood and texture. It’s interesting that Martinu himself considered the Third to be “actually” his first symphony, having had Beethoven’s Eroica in mind when he wrote it. “It is a work of revolt,” he once claimed, “of manly defiance, of grim yet firm determination, challenging fate.” Karel Šejna’s premiere recording (Czech PO) has an even firmer grip than Belohlávek’s but this new live version is surely the best we’ve had in years. It’s interesting that both of Belohlávek’s recordings are unique in restoring 30 bars of previously cut material (part of the build-up towards the first movement’s anguished central climax), and there also differences in the Fourth. Both symphonies are played from revised editions. I should however make special mention of Vladimir Válek’s largely undervalued Supraphon set with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra where, although some tempi are slower than normal, a degree of transparency compensates, especially at the start of the Sixth, where the jittery muted trumpet line rises above the swarming accompaniment without disregarding Martinu’s piano marking. Válek is again impressive in the Fifth, almost as dogged as An∂erl in the finale but capturing the buoyant rhythm (echoes of Beethoven’s Seventh this time) more vividly than most. Belohlávek is faster, which leads to a slight sense of rhythmic ambiguity near the start of the Allegro, but thereafter things go swimmingly and the performance, like the others in the set, is full of fire and interpretative interest.
In short, Belohlávek and the BBC SO are now my top recommendation for the Martinu symphonies, with Järvi and the Bamberg Symphony a credible budget option and Válek a useful supplement for those who value clarity above weight, excitement and dynamism. The Onyx set also has the benefit of Mike Crump’s excellent booklet-notes. Needless to say, compelling older recordings under, for example, Neumann (the whole cycle), Šejna (No 3), Ansermet and Kubelík (No 4), An∂erl (Nos 5 and 6) and Munch (No 6) shouldn’t be forgotten.