Martinu: The 6 Symphonies

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Martinu
LABELS: Onyx
WORKS: Complete Symphonies
PERFORMER: BBC SO/Jiri Bˇelohlávek
CATALOGUE NO: ONYX 4061

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Martinu˚’s career as a symphonist falls into two distinct phases. The first, from 1941, resulted in five symphonies, produced more or less annually. Having arrived in the United States with virtually nothing in the spring of 1941, Martinu˚ needed to quickly make a mark on American audiences. An early commission from Serge Koussevitzky for a large orchestral work led to the First Symphony. Its hugely successful premiere in 1942 did much to advance Martinu˚’s reputation in the United States. His second phase of symphonic composition, between 1951 and 1953, produced one of his most personal works, the Sixth Symphony. Entitled ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’, its musical language often anticipates the radiant tonality of his opera, The Greek Passion, but at times is also fiercely dissonant.

Jirˇí Beˇlohlávek’s performances – recorded live at the Barbican in 2009 and 2010 – stand up very well by comparison with other complete recordings. As a whole, they are much to be preferred to those by Bryden Thomson and Neeme Järvi, and also compare very favourably with Václav Neumann’s much admired set with the Czech Philharmonic from the late 1970s. Beˇlohlávek and the orchestra are superb in the first three symphonies. He captures Martinu˚’s shimmering, luminous orchestral textures and invests the pervasive ‘sprung’ rhythms of the faster movements with an infectious bounce. Beˇlohlávek’s emotional engagement is always complete, in particular in his deeply moving performance of the slow movement of the Second Symphony. He is equally good at capturing the storm and stress of the Third Symphony and throughout the set, Beˇlohlávek’s grasp of the trajectory of the symphonic argument is at all times apparent.

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Not all these performances maintain this exalted level: the first movement of the Fourth Symphony feels a little unsettled and lacks optimistic radiance. There is also a tendency to force the pace in the outer movements of the harder-edged Fifth Symphony: the finale begins well, but the main Allegro seems oddly routine. The performance of the Sixth, however, is extremely fine. Beˇlohlávek navigates the extremes of Martinu˚’s mood swings with consummate skill. Notwithstanding the reservations above, this very well recorded complete set is the strongest available to date. Jan Smaczny