Martinu: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Martinu
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: National SO of Ukraine/Arthur Fagen
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553349
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine seems to have a real feeling for Martinu’s idiom and turns in commendably authentic-sounding performances: bright, colourful and well-shaped. These symphonies make a nicely contrasted coupling, too: No. 2 something of a ‘pastoral sinfonietta’ with its luminous scoring and comparatively short, ebullient third and fourth movements, while No. 4 is possibly Martinu’s greatest, the sinister dionysiac vigour of the march-scherzo and the mystic exaltation of the slow movement giving way to a decisive and finally triumphant finale of tremendous rhythmic drive.

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It comes over very well here; in fact the performance of No. 4 seems a notch above that of No. 2, where there are occasional moments of untidy ensemble and the orchestral piano is rather oddly balanced. I found myself reliving some of my teenage excitement at the sheer individuality of the composer’s sound-world. The recording lacks – perhaps to its advantage – the cavernous acoustic resonance of the classic Supraphon versions from the Sixties (Ancerl, Neumann, Turnovsky) from which we first learned these works. Instead it’s bright and clear, allowing much of the teeming instrumental detail, the intensifying flecks of woodwind and percussion, to make their full contribution. Altogether these are perfectly good versions of still-underrated music, and tempting at the price. Yet it’s only just to say they’re not quite out of the top drawer: Neeme Järvi in his set of Nos 1-4 with the Bamberg SO, or (especially) Belohlávek with the Czech PO in No. 4 only, provide still finer playing and bring greater understanding, vividness and impetus. Calum MacDonald