The Six Symphonies
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London, between October 2009 & May 2010
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: July 2011
CD No: ONYX 4061 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 3 minutes
It’s strange how one’s attitude to a composer changes over the years. Having listened to a lot of Bohuslav Martinů’s music I saw no reason to change my mind that he is an over-prolific, rather uninteresting neo-classicist, whose music has too many notes! 2009 marked the 50th-anniversary of the composer’s death and a chance to reassess this shadowy figure. Central to that re-evaluation was this cycle of the six symphonies given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in its concert series in the Barbican Hall, fully reviewed by Classical Source (see links below), from which these recordings are taken.
The word revelation is one that is somewhat over-used, but the present writer must confess to a kind of ‘road to Damascus’ conversion, brought about by the couple of those performances that I heard and these really rather wonderful recordings. Jiří Bělohlávek weeds out the most important lines from Martinů’s busy textures and, in every case, the combination of clarity, rhythmic drive and outstanding orchestral playing gives these works new life.
After hearing these symphonies again, I might even go so far as to say that Martinů has a unique orchestral sound – one might point to Stravinsky and Bartók and perhaps argue that he wouldn’t have got that sound without them, but the glittering harp and percussion, prominence of the piano and elegant writing for wind instruments does give his music a very particular stamp. The slow movements have a tragic melancholy reflecting the composer’s longing for his homeland, the faster ones an irresistible energy and an almost Dvořákian joy – a true Czech spirit, which unsurprisingly Bělohlávek understands down to the last note.
With such a high quality set of performances it is difficult to highlight individual moments – but perhaps it is worth mentioning the sombre Largo of the under-valued First Symphony, the finale of the Third in which striking dissonant chords put an end to its uneasy calm, and the unrestrained elation of perhaps his best-known symphony, the Fourth, which the BBCSO tears into with particular vigour.
These are performances that I will want to go back to again and again – something I never thought I would say about music by Martinů. This is unquestionably a major recording event.