Martinu – Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 5 & 6
PERFORMER: Czech PO/Jirí Belohlávek


Martinu’s transformation into a symphonist came at a crucial moment in his career. Through the 1930s, his style might best be described as neo-Baroque with his strong affinities with the concerto grosso; certainly a symphony did not seem to be on the agenda. When Martinu arrived in New York, having fled Europe in 1941, his fortunes were at a very low ebb; he had barely a handful of works with him and prospects looked bleak.

To the rescue came an old supporter, Serge Koussevitzky, who commissioned Martin∞ to write an orchestral work. The result was the First Symphony and over the next four years Martin∞ wrote one more or less annually. The Fifth Symphony was the climax of this first phase of symphonism. It is a captivating work which runs the emotional gamut from the near tragic to almost Beethovenian exultation. 

Jirí Belohlávek is one of Martin∞’s most distinguished interpreters today and he certainly has the measure of the Fifth. Notwithstanding a slightly distant recording, the complex textures of the first movement are superbly delineated and the finale has thrilling immediacy. Even so, Beohlávek’s reading, for all its qualities, does not replace in my affection Václav Neumann’s superb recording on Supraphon from the 1970s.


The Sixth Symphony, composed seven years after the Fifth, alternates mystery with great lyrical warmth. Its polyglot nature, including a quote from the opera Julietta and pre-echoes of the Greek Passion, needs very careful handling. Belohlávek responds to its disparate moods magnificently in a performance of, at times, breathtaking intensity. Jan Smaczny