MARTINŮ: The Six Symphonies – Jiří Bělohlávek/ BBC Symphony Orchestra – Onyx

by | Oct 25, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ: The Six Symphonies – Jiří Bělohlávek/ BBC Symphony Orchestra – Onyx Classics  4061, 182:07 (3 CDs) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů, born in 1890, had a fairly large and very interesting output, although not nearly as well known as perhaps he and his music should be. In some ways, his music is trapped in a time and locale between that of Dvorak and the – then – radical new approaches of Stravinsky. Martinů’s music is consistently tonal and accessible and frequently innovative, even bold, in its approach. Aside from his six symphonies, heard in wonderful performances here, many readers may know some of his large, atypical, works such as his Concerto for two pianos and strings (1943) or maybe his opera The Greek Passion (1954).
The six symphonies are somewhat well known and get some played from time to time; especially the fourth it seems. All are very fine works and this complete set with the BBC Symphony is a first class introduction to the whole set.
In this case, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, is the principal conductor of the BBC and is clearly well acquainted with his countryman’s output. The performance of each of the symphonies is very fine indeed and the sound engineering is quite good.
Each symphony is a very attractive and somewhat concise work, each being just about thirty minutes in duration. The Symphony No.1, from 1942, comes on the heels of Martinů’s successful Concerto grosso.  The work is noted for its dynamic opening and a scherzo movement that owes a bit to Dvorak as well as to Beethoven. The largo, though, is quite somber in its mood due in large part to the composer’s frame of mind at the time of the death of his mistress and former pupil. The Symphony closes with a very optimistic and thrilling march.
There is a tone and traditional feel that permeates of each Martinů’s first four symphonies. Interestingly, the Symphony No. 2, from 1943, is his shortest. Structurally, this piece is similar to a concerto grosso, including Martinů’s own. The composer keeps the mood of this modest but engaging work pretty light throughout. The coda with its sudden full use of tympani and brass provides a particularly buoyant close. The Symphony No. 3 was written but a year later and was written for the Boston Symphony. Of the first four symphonies, this work is arguably Martinů’s most somber, with its rather moody string fantasy in the middle section. The work ends in a very mysterious way, as well with a solo string quartet that gets interrupted by three dissonant chords by the orchestral piano. The exact meaning of this effect is still a debate, although Onyx annotator Mike Crump states that Martinů may have been responding to his own feelings about “D-Day” and the height of the Second World War.
Martinů’s Symphony No. 4 is the one most often played, perhaps due to its predominantly positive tone. Save the almost exotic sound of the Largo, with its wonderful alternation between a string trio and the response from the full orchestra, this is a work that sounds full and ebullient throughout. The Symphony was premiered by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1945.
There is a shift in tone between the fourth symphony and the Symphony No. 5, composed in late 1946. The first movement contains ample melodic fragment built on minor seconds and augmented fourths and provides a nervous energy to the movement. Later sections do seem to echo Beethoven, especially the symphonies number seven and eight with their reliance on dotted rhythms and a sense of propulsion. This and Martinů’s final, the Symphony No. 6, is among perhaps his “headiest” works, showing great sophistication but providing much for audiences to ruminate over while listening. The Symphony No. 6, from 1953, nearly abandons the traditional symphonic form and represents a departure from his prior works. Subtitled “Fantaisies symphoniques”, Martinů created a work that feels very different, very personal. The opening movement, for example, is structured almost exclusively around a single pitch, that later evolves into a motive that is said to be a quote from the Dvorak Requiem. The subtitle, too, is claimed to be in homage, if not in structure, to the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. This is a fascinating work and one that the composer seemed to view as his last, choosing to pave new ground wherein.
I enjoyed this set a great deal. I had only heard the Symphony No. 4 once before and not the others that I can recall. This was a very pleasant discovery; very fine works that deserve to be heard more given first rate performances and good quality sound from the Onyx group. Highly recommended!
—Daniel Coombs

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