Martinů What Men Live By; Symphony No. 1
Ivan Kusnjer, Petr Svoboda, Jan Martiník, Lucie Silkenová, Ester Pavlů, Lukáš Mareček; Czech Philharmonic/Jiři Bělohlávek
Supraphon SU 4233-2 75:57 mins
There had to come a point in the prolific revelation of Martinů rarities from the Czech label Supraphon where a dud surfaced. Here, in my opinion, it is: the one-act semi-opera based on a Tolstoy tale of a humble cobbler following Christ’s example by being generous to the poor and needy. No reason why it shouldn’t have worked: Martinů hit the right tone of a new simplicity in his late masterpiece based on Kazantzakis, The Greek Passion. But this sounds throughout, even in the numinous calling of the Lord which conjures up the composer’s familiar spooky vein, like Martinů lite. It also seems that in 1952 he hadn’t yet mastered the setting of idiomatic English, further hampered by the highly-accented tones of the Czech soloists here (‘vish’ and ‘vill’ proliferate). Otherwise, this is probably as good as it’s likely to get.
Had Bělohlávek lived longer, the pairing might have been the contemporary opera based on Gogol’s The Marriage. Instead there’s a performance of the First Symphony, Bělohlávek’s third recording, but especially welcome in the ambiguities of the opening chords with chromatic runs within them after the glib ending of What Men Live By. The soft-grained Czech Philharmonic sound lends an air of luminous persistence to the ever-developing first movement, and the profoundly moving Largo feels totally organic, always a Bělohlávek speciality. The first of a sequence written relatively late in Martinů’s life, this symphony is as great as its most ambitious companions, the Third, Fourth and Fantaisies Symphoniques: mastery reasserted.