Martinu was in his fifties when he wrote his Symphony No. 1 in response to Koussevitzky’s commission in 1942 for an orchestral work in memory of his wife Natalie. He found that the symphonic idiom suited him; his first five symphonies were all products of his American years, their yearly sequence ending in 1946 when he suffered severe injuries in falling from a balcony. The Sixth Symphony (Fantaisies symphoniques;1951-53) stands somewhat apart, composed for the conductor Charles Munch and his ‘spontaneous approach . . . where music takes shape in a free way’.
Each Martinu symphony has its own expressive imagery and cohesiveness, and each is a masterpiece, confirming him as the true heir of Dvorák in maintaining the Czech symphonic tradition.
The late Bryden Thomson recorded the symphonies with the SNO (now the Royal Scottish Orchestra) during 1989-90, and they are here gathered together as a three-CD set which forms a fitting memorial to their collaboration. The recorded sound is clear and atmospheric, preserving that sense of mystery which lies at the heart of music such as the First Symphony’s elegiac slow movement, but equally packing a real punch in the rhythmic scherzi or the richly textured climaxes.
The performances are strongly characterised and the individuality of each symphony is clear: the intense conflicts of No. 3, the sunnier, more lyrical dispositions of Nos. 2 and 4. The orchestral playing is excellent, and only at the beginning of Symphony No. 1 – surely too fast for a Moderato – does a tempo seem dubious.
This Chandos issue, which comes with a substantial and perceptive essay by Jan Smaczny, makes a notable addition to the Martinu catalogue. While other recordings still have much to offer, Thomson’s set must become the top recommendation, confirming as it does Ernest Ansermet’s judgment that ‘among his generation, Martinu can be characterised as the really great symphonist’.Terry Barfoot