Symphonies Nos 1-6
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cornelius Meister
There’s no reason why an Austrian or a German orchestra shouldn’t play Martinů’s six astonishing symphonies, as well as the Czechs (or Brits under a Czech conductor, in the late Jiří Bělohlávek’s magnificent second cycle). After all, Jakub Hrůša, next in line to set his seal on these masterpieces, told me in interview that one of his major discoveries recently was to find such a thing as a common middle-European sound world, and Martinů often fits that identity with his homesick thoughts of Moravia from exile in America and Switzerland. Sadly this Vienna radio orchestra under what seems to be a merely proficient young conductor, Cornelius Meister, comes nowhere near the BBC Symphony Orchestra or the Bambergers under Neeme Järvi in the other top Martinů set to date.
For a start the strings aren’t warm or mellifluous enough, though they come close at times. What really sinks several of the interpretations is the lack of urgent forward impetus. That’s most damaging of all to the life-and-death drama of the Fantaisies Symphoniques, completed in 1953 some time after the other sequence of one-a-year numbered symphonies. Its counterpart in overall intensity, the still-underrated Third with its transcendent-scary finale, fares better; the sounds here are so strange that validity rests as much with a more texturally precise approach as the atmospheres of Järvi or Bělohlávek. And as in every cycle the little miracles in every symphonic movement still make their mark, with fascinating detail in the hallucinogenic bubblings that haunt all the symphonies; until the Fantaisies, this is a good enough introduction. But the sound is too close for the strings, too recessed for some of the wind solos. So while Meister is to be applauded for championing the rich and rare, competition puts this too much in the shade.