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5.1.19

A Survey of Martinů Symphony Cycles


An Index of ionarts Discographies




Martinů, A Love Affair

When getting a little better acquainted with Bohuslav Martinů, most people will start with the symphonies. They are his most prominent works and, apart maybe from the Second Violin Concerto and the neo-classical La revue de cuisine, the least seldom performed. Like so much music, they have an easier time communicating during a live event, but with a bit of concentration and a nice Scotch or other imbibement of choice at hand, they will yield their beauty, excitement, and vigor on record. As a group of symphonies, they are among the best the 20th century can offer; think Nielsen, Prokofiev, Honegger; even Shostakovich. (If you are missing Sibelius in this list, that's because I consider him a step above, still… perhaps the finest symphonist of the 20th century and in any case an unfair comparison to just about any other symphonist either side of him.)

The symphonies are also a good entry point, because they are all late works, which is, as Robert R. Reilly notes in Surprised by Beauty, “Martinů’s last magical period”. This way one avoids the heterogeneous previous styles for the introduction and, Reilly continues, “once captivated, [you can] work back through his earlier periods, which each contain masterpieces.” That is certainly true for the jaunty and lighthearted, piano-assisted de-facto Scherzo (“poco allegro”) of the Second Symphony. This is a most easily appreciable corker, even as some of the jolly ease seeps out a little before the finale (itself bright and merry) enters to carry this short crowd pleaser to its rambunctious end. The Third Symphony also has all the makings of an audience pleaser – if only an audience showed up when Martinů, too obscure for average concert-goers, is on the bill. The highlight-filled first movement – full of swinging rhythmic complexity – ends with a terrific bang. There’s a strong, timpani-motored lyrical surge in the middle movement, and the colorfully wily finale rouses even the drowsiest patrons. And, as if it needed another selling point, it’s no longer than a late Haydn Symphony! The touches of Janáček (i.e. Cunning Little Vixen) in the opening of the Fifth Symphony or the resolving chords of the Sixth that communicate the sun rising and spreading its fingers benevolently above all and sundry are musical equivalents of a wide smile.

American Symphonies

Martinů – a functional Asperger sufferer – was 51 when he wrote his first symphony in 1942 and around that time told his biographer “From now on, I’m going all in for fantasy.” To make the point unmistakable, he subtitled his Fourth Piano Concerto Incantations and his Sixth Symphony Fantaisies Symphoniques. The symphonic flowering of his last decade-and-a-half produced such masterpieces as the six symphonies, The Parables, Toccata e due Canzone, Les Fresques de Piero Della Francesca, and Estampes, all of which qualify as orchestral fantasias.” (Reilly, Surprised by Beauty) They are American Symphonies in the sense that they were all written in the US and – except for the Fifth – premiered by the Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia orchestras. For more on Martinů, see the chapter in Surprised by Beauty. See also the SBB Recommended Recordings section and this SBB CD review of Martinů’s Bouquet of Flowers.

Considering that all six symphonies amount to only about three hours of music (thereby fitting easily on three CDs), and that they are such major works, it might seem surprising that there are only seven complete cycles to-date (and none on the 'major' labels) – whereas there are already 12 (and more under way) of Vaughan Williams’ cycle of Nine or 21 of Shostakovich’s cycle of 15. As such, this discography took considerably less time to research and put together. Nevertheless, it's not likely to be mistake free. Hence my plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge on the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae or broken links or oversights.

Almost-Cycles

There are several “Almost-Cycles” of Martinů’s symphonies; collections of most but not all the symphonies by one conductor. Since there are only seven complete cycles, it made sense to gather and introduce some of these, too. They all seem to have had at least vague intentions of becoming a cycle but for one reason or another didn’t. You will find them below the listing of the complete cycles.

Enjoy - and please comment either below or on Twitter.







Václav Neumann
(1976 – 1978)

Czech Philharmonic
Supraphon


Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra were the first to tackle a complete cycle. Between 1976 and 78, they recorded the six symphonies for Supraphon. Before that, the last four symphonies had to be cobbled together from revered but aging Supraphon recordings by Karel Ančerl (5, 6), Martin Turnovský (4) and Karel Šejna (3), while the first two weren’t then available at all. As per Robert Reilly, “a magician is needed to conjure the magic in Martinů’s music. Martinů is such an idiosyncratic composer that the right performance is vital to bringing out its special character. Czech conductor Karel Ančerl made Martinů’s music not only tremendously exciting but almost dangerous.” Anyone who gets interested in Martinů’s symphonies will eventually want to try out those of Ančerl, but it needn’t be the place to start. There are also live recordings of Ančerl conducting the First and Third Symphonies. Both suffer a bit more from their age than the studio recordings.

First recordings of anything leave – if they are widely-enough circulated and supposing they lack any crippling flaws – an emotional footprint in their listeners and tend to be valued highly – more highly than they would otherwise be – from thereon. That isn’t to say that Neumann’s recordings aren’t actually excellent. They certainly are – and Reilly even suggests Neumann’s “highly expressive, finely articulated performances with an orchestra that has this music in its blood” is a cycle underrated by some critics.

Perhaps me among them, because to me, the performances sound just a little dated. If these interpretations were somehow inherently superior to all that came after, the increases in recording technology and technical ability among orchestra players wouldn’t matter… but there are other excellent interpretations, and that makes Neumann’s cycle take a back seat in my book. Neumann was also one of the great Dvořák conductors (his 1970s cycle is among my favorites; see also the Dvořák Symphony Cycle Discography), and perhaps it is no surprise then that his interpretations of Martinů, by and large, are cut from a romantic-folksy cloth, one that opts for a generous smile over clenched fists. My problem with this relaxed approach is that it doesn’t jump out at you to grab you by the lapels – and that it therefore makes for a less convincing a first encounter with Martinů than other, more aggressive, or at least tighter, approaches. (MWeb review here)


available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Supraphon
Release: 1989
3CDs

US | UK | DE


US | UK | DE

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Supraphon Japan
Release: 2005?
3CDs

US | UK | DE

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Supraphon
Release: ancient
LPs



Neeme Järvi
(1987 – 1988)

Bamberg Symphony
BIS


Wild and rather exciting, often with abrupt eruptions and pointed phrasing, this cycle is not so much high on idiomatic lilt (frankly overrated with a composer as international as Martinů) than it is good for its punch. That makes it above-average suited for a first exposure, because if excitement is kindled first, the thirst for nuance will follow eventually. Hurwitz calles it "sloppy but often exciting", which is sounds about right. The fact that the BIS recordings have been re-issued both as a nice and competitive set on BIS and as a super-budget set on Brilliant makes it one of the most easily acquired sets. (The BIS set has the advantage of good liner notes. ClassicsToday review here. MWeb reviews here and here.)


available at Amazon
The Symphonies

BIS
Release: 2003
3CDs

US | UK | DE

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Brilliant
Release: 2008
3CDs

US | UK | DE

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Musical Heritage
Release: 19??
3CDs

US | UK | DE


Bryden Thomson
(1989 – 1990)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Chandos


Coming out almost concurrently with Neeme Järvi’s set was Bryden Thomson’s with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – in glamorous, rich (almost overegged) Chandos-sound. This is dramatic and colorful Martinů; less pushy than Järvi on the whole, and perhaps with a tendency to overplay extremes at the expense of the whole. It is forward-storming, uninhibited, sometimes moody, and it quickly won itself a following and was long an easy top recommendation. It is occasionally called “unidiomatic”; that easy-to-make and hard-to-(dis)prove accusation against orchestras playing music from a different culture. Still, there’s a reason for this; musical cultural references are often very subtle and hard to pick up for outsiders (or even to communicate by a conductor). But then they are just as difficult to notice for a critic who is not absolutely steeped in that culture. (ClassicsToday review here. MWeb review here.)


available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Chandos
Release: 2005
3CDs

US | UK | DE

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Chandos
Release: 1992
3CDs

US | UK | DE

Arthur Fagen
(1995)

Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra
Naxos


Whether it is because they appeared on Naxos, something that used to give new releases competing with other releases on more established labels an immediate handicap, or because they really are not competitive, Arthur Fagen’s recordings with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is the least recommended set. Reilly is one of the few who comes to its rescue: “Criticized for being unidiomatic [that again!], these performances are fascinating for exactly that reason. Fagen irons out some of Martinů’s distinctive peculiarities and plays these symphonies as if they were more conventional compositions, and it works amazingly well.” Having re-listened to these symphonies for the first time in years, I cannot quite follow some of the strong accusations (“thin gruel”, “underpowered” et al.) or even my own past easy dismissal. In fact, I found the Third thrusting and slick while the Fourth paled just a little compared to, say, Järvi or Bělohlávek. The Fifth, admittedly, rather lumbers than propels. For all that’s good about these performances, short of having a particular affinity for the Naxos label this would probably not be anyone’s recommendation as a first or definitive cycle of these works. (ClassicsToday reviews of Sys 2/4 here and of Sys 3/5 here.)



available at Amazon

Symphonies 1 & 6

Naxos
Release: 1997
CD 1

US | UK | DE


available at Amazon

Symphonies 2 & 4

Naxos
Release: 2000
CD 2

US | UK | DE


available at Amazon

Symphonies 3 & 5

Naxos
Release: 2001
CD 2

US | UK | DE


Vladimir Válek
(2003)

Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
Supraphon

This is the ‘lesser’ among the established orchestras in Prague; certainly not up there in reputation (and perhaps player-for-player skill) with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Nor is Vladimír Válek a household name in the international classical music circuit. But Supraphon figured that these 2003 recordings merited bringing out a new cycle, after all. They came with little fanfare and initial lukewarm (if any) press. But Supraphon did well to publish them. When I approached these recordings with a lot of skepticism (in fact, putting off listening to them for several years), I was surprised how very good they are. Not just very good compared to low expectations, but very, very good in their own right. There are clear and bright, transparent and tight, bare-knuckle performances in fittingly bright, excellent sound and undisturbed by audience noises. It is hard to pin down Válek to a particular interpretative stance. He certainly takes his time in the Fourth and Fifth symphony to delve into the colors and feel out the romantic breadth of these works. But he isn’t one for slow tempos across the board; his Third, for one, is a comparatively light and luminous fire-cracker. The mini-violin concerto of the otherwise crisp Sixth’s First movement is given every chance to bloom. The tightening of the screws in the Larghetto of the Fifth is done with a superb mix of delicacy and ruthlessness. (The considerably differing ClassicsToday review here.)

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Supraphon
Release: 1995
3CDs

US | UK | DE


Jiří Bělohlávek
(2009 – 2010)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Onyx

When Jiří Bělohlávek got around to recording Martinů’s symphonies for the third time (two previous goes with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra didn’t pan out, see below) – now with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of which he was the Chief Conductor from 2006 until 2013 – he managed to finish the cycle and the set of six symphonies was brought ought to much acclaim. Of course it helps to have the British press nearby and one of their orchestras and a British label involved… and subsequently the cycle – immediately hailed as the obvious go-to, ‘don’t-bother-listening-to-anything-else’ standard – strikes me as a little overrated and over-enthused-about. Still, Bělohlávek and his British orchestra here succeed like no recordings since the older, classic accounts in convincingly detailing the dark colors and nuances of these symphonies. In doing so, Bělohlávek remains interpretatively on the neo-classical side of things (as opposed to Neumann, with his post-romantic penchant), with harder edges and a tighter, driven approach. (ClassicsToday review here; MWeb review here. Gramophone review here.)


available at Amazon

The Symphonies

Onyx
Release: 2011
3CDs

US | UK | DE


Cornelius Meister
(2011 – 2017)

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Capriccio

The latest contender comes from Austria. The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (Marin Alsop’s new band) was led by Cornelius Meister in these symphonies – and the young conductor really outdid himself in the performances at Vienna’s Konzerthaus. Reviews have been divergent for this set; perhaps biased by the fine live performances, I am rather fond of it and tempted to give it an ionarts recommendation. But then I would probably want to give the Järvi-set a recommendation, too, for being such a good introduction to this composer... and Fagen for being such an interesting alternative. In the end every set would have one or more recommendations which would seem inflationary. (MWeb review here.)

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Capriccio
Release: 2017
3CDs

US | UK | DE

Incomplete Cycles



Karel Ančerl [1, 3, 5, 6]
(1955 – 1966)

Czech Philharmonic
Supraphon et al.

As per Robert Reilly, “a magician is needed to conjure the magic in Martinů’s music. Martinů is such an idiosyncratic composer that the right performance is vital to bringing out its special character. Czech conductor Karel Ančerl made Martinů’s music not only tremendously exciting but almost dangerous.” Anyone who gets interested in Martinů’s symphonies will eventually want to try out those Ančerl (nos. Five and Six, from 1955), but it needn’t be the place to start. There are also live recordings of Ančerl conducting the First and Third (and Fifth) Symphonies in the late sixties. Although a decade younger, they suffer a bit more from their age than the studio recordings.

available at Amazon
Symphonies 5 & 6
K.A. Gold Ed. v.34
Supraphon
Release: 2004
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphony No.3
+ Bouquet of Flowers
Praga
Release: 1996
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphonies 1, 3, 5
(oop)
Multisonic
Release: 1995
1 CD

US | UK | DE


Gennady Rozhdestvensky [2, 3, 5, 6]
(1985)

USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra
Various

Scattered across a few budget labels (like Russia Revelation) and very much out of print are Gennady Rozhdestvensky's recordings of Symphonies 2, 3, 5 and 6. I have not checked the programs of the USSR SO from around the time, but it is possible they presented all six of these symphonies... in which case it is perfectly possible that the missing two symphonies also exist on tape in some basement. Perhaps something for the archivists at Melodiya to look into.

available at Amazon
Symphonies 2 & 3

Yedang Classics
Release: ????
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphonies 5 & 6

Russian Revelation
Release: ????
1CD

US | UK | DE

Claus Peter Flor [1, 2, 5, 6]
(1987 – 1989)

Berlin Symphony Orchestra VEB Schallplatten/RCA

Claus Peter Flor recorded Martinů Symphonies One, Two, Five and Six with the East German Berlin Symphony Orchestra (now the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin) for RCA in the Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin. But the middle symphonies were never put on record. The answer as to why can be found in the recording dates: Begun in 1986, the last recordings were made in 1989. Then, most likely, German Reunification got in the way and after the upheaval, no one returned to that project. By 1991 Flor had moved on (he became principal guest conductor of both the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra that year) and Michael Schønwandt became the new music director and the orchestra was made the Konzerthaus' orchestra in residence. Almost makes the demi-cycle a musical statue of Ozymandias: a fragment that reminds us of history's ways. (ClassicsToday review of 1 & 2 here.)

available at Amazon
Symphonies 1 & 2

RCA
Release: 1990
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphonies 4 & 6

RCA
Release: 1988
1CD

US | UK | DE

Jiří Bělohlávek [1, 4, 6 +]
(~1990)

Czech Philharmonic Chandos

In 1990 Chandos started to record a cycle of Martinů Symphonies with the brand new chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic – a logical choice for the label, now that the market was open to record with orchestras formerly beyond the Iron curtain. Aside, the last recordings of that combination – with Neumann – were getting a bit old. (How this jibed with the label already recording the Thomson/Scottish cycle at that time, alas, I do not know.) In any case the Czech PO ousted Bělohlávek (see below) and that was the end of that.

available at Amazon
Symphony 1
+ Double Concerto H. 271
Chandos
Release: 1991
2CDs

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphony 4
+ Field Mass et al.
Chandos
Release: 1993
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphony 6
+ Janáček & Suk
Chandos
Release: 1990
1CD

US | UK | DE

Jiří Bělohlávek [1, 3, 4, 5, 6]
(2003 – 2016)

Czech Philharmonic Supraphon

It is only now, in retrospect, clear why this second intended Martinů cycle with the Czech PO was not finished... twice! The answer to the first attempt not going any further can presumably be found somewhere in the checkered history between conductor and orchestra: After leading the Prague Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, Bělohlávek had been appointed chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990 as the successor of Neumann’s. But the orchestra, on the first opportunity of being allowed to appoint their own music director, went with Gerd Albrecht instead. Bělohlávek freely admits to having been shattered by that decision, immediately quit, turned around and founded the Prague Philharmonia. (Keeping track of Prague orchestras can be tricky!) That first cycle will have been a victim of that severing of ties. The Albrecht tenure, meanwhile, turned out to be a disaster as politics got involved (one of Václav Havel less graceful moments) and the subsequent music directors of the Czech Philharmonic (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Zdeněk Mácal, and Eliahu Inbal) constituted more a time of recovery than re-establishing an identity.

A good decade in, the relationship between the orchestra and Bělohlávek seemed to have been warming again, and it’s in that period that these four recordings were made (2003 and 2009). The reviews, from what I can tell, were uniformly excellent, and it was bound to be the new cycle. It would only have made sense to finish it, too, because in 2012 Bělohlávek agreed to assume the role of chief conductor again… a partnership that has proven very fruitful in the meantime. But by 2009 (at the latest) I suspect that it became clear that Bělohlávek would get to record a complete cycle with the orchestra of which he was then the music director, the BBC Symphony Orchestra… and it was not deemed a good idea to have two roughly contemporaneous sets of Martinů symphonies led by the same conductor competing with each other. The success of the BBC set seems to have proven him right. Still, it looked like Bělohlávek wanted to become the second conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to record a Martinů symphony cycle during his tenure, after all, because in 2016 he picked up on the previous recordings and added the First Symphony (released in October of 2018). It looked at first like he would have enough time, too: his contract ran until 2022. Death, sadly, got to him before he could get there.

available at Amazon
Symphony 1
+ What Men Live By
Supraphon
Release: 2018
1CD

US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphonies 3 & 4

Supraphon
Release: 2003
1CD

US | UK | DE


US | UK | DE
available at Amazon
Symphonies 5 & 6

Supraphon
Release: 2009
1CD

US | UK | DE


US | UK | DE






2 comments:

Anonymous said...

jfl:

Thank you for this survey of recordings of Martinů Symphonies - I know most of these and in most cases concur with what you say.

As you are enthusiastic as I am about the performances conducted by Karel Ančerl, you might like to hear his performance - I believe the only one he gave - of Symphony No 2, recorded in the BBC's Maida Vale Studio with the Czech Philharmonic, leader Bruno Belčík, on 2 March 1962. The sound qulaity is not good - I hope someone issues the performance commercially in better sound at some time - and also the other work in the concert, Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia. I hope this linke works for you:

https://www.mediafire.com/#ewed3dbkvb6wd

jfl said...

Thanks for the comment and the hint re: Ancerl. I wonder if there will ever be a master tape that turns up.