Recordings of Martinů have exploded over the last 15, 20 years, leaving the intrepid Martinů-explorer with an embarrassment of riches to choose from.
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.
His interpretations with the Czech Philharmonic reveal the sense of menace in this music (as in the crepuscular murmurings at the beginning of the Sixth Symphony). Despite its age, Ančerl’s 1956 recording of the Sixth Symphony (Supraphon), is indispensable. Once you hear it, you will understand how other performances fall short. Currently the Sixth is conveniently coupled with the Fifth and Memorial to Lidice on Supraphon’s “Ančerl Gold Edition”. Ančerl’s interpretations of The Parables and Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca are just about as incomparable and occasionally available on Supraphon. Broadcast tapes of Symphonies nos. 1, 3, and 5, again with the Czech Philharmonic, have once appeared on the Multisonic label and can occasionally be found second-hand. Their sound is dim, but Ančerl’s fire burns through.
There are an increasing number of recordings of the symphonies, available in mostly modern sound. BBC Symphony Orchestra under the late Jiří Bělohlávek recorded all six for the Onyx label. Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic, recorded for Supraphon in the 70s, give highly expressive, finely articulated performances with an orchestra that has this music in its blood. Neeme Järvi’s recordings with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (originally BIS, also on budget Brilliant Classics), are reliable, too. Bryden Thomson and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos benefit from rich sound, but overplay extremes at the expense of the whole. Every set has detractors and champions, but these symphonies need excellence, not adequacy, to convince. Vladimír Válek and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (Supraphon again) arguably achieve that better than most modern cycles, with transparent, tight, bare-knuckle performances in bright sound, undisturbed by audience noises.
The newest set, with Martinů veteran Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra has received the most praise (in and of itself no miracle, if you know the dominance of English record reviewing publication and their pet biases), but it really does succeed like no one since the older, classic accounts in convincingly detailing the dark colors and nuances of these symphonies. (Apart from Válek, that is, whose set was largely ignored when it came out.) Once you know this music, try the budget Naxos recording of the Symphonies nos. 1 and 6, performed by the National Symphony of Ukraine, under conductor Arthur Fagen. Criticized for being unidiomatic, 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.
Not mentioned in the chapter above but absolutely essential is the Second Violin concerto, one of the great violin concertos of the 20th century and well beyond.
Toccata Press has published Martinů and the Symphony by Michael Crump. It is, unbelievably, the first complete study of these magical symphonic works and thus a must for Martinů lovers. (A penchant for in-depth musicological examination helps in its appreciation.)
Complete Symphonies, Jiří Bělohlávek, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Onyx 4061
Complete Symphonies, Vladimír Válek, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Supraphon 3940
Complete Symphonies, Neeme Järvi, Bamberg Symphony, BIS & Brilliant Classics 8950
Symphonies nos. 5 & 6, Memorial to Lidice, Karel Ančerl, Czech Philharmonic, Supraphon 3694 (Ančerl Gold Edition 34)
Overture, Rhapsody for Large Orchestra, Sinfonia concertante no. 1, Concerto grosso, Parables, Jiří Bělohlávek, Czech Philharmonic, Supraphon 3743
Sinfonietta giocosa, Sinfonietta la jolla, Toccata e due Canzoni, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Thomas Vásáry, Chandos 8859
Field Mass, Double Concerto, Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Charles Mackerras, Czech Philharmonic, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Supraphon 3276
Violin Concerto no.2, Toccata e due Canzoni, Isabelle Faust (violin), Jiří Bělohlávek, Prague Philharmonia, Harmonia Mundi 1951951
Violin Concertos nos. 1 & 2, Bohuslav Matoušek (violin), Christopher Hogwood, Czech Philharmonic, hyperion 67674
Three Double Concertos, Mari & Momo Kodama (pianos), Sarah & Deborah Nematu (violins), Magali Demesse (viola), Lawrence Foster, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marsaille, Pentatone SACD 5186 658
Complete Piano Concertos, Emil Leichner (piano), Jiří Bělohlávek, Czech Philharmonic, Supraphon 1313
Piano Concertos nos. 2–4, Rudolf Firkušny (piano), Libor Pešek, Czech Philharmonic, under Libor Pesek, RCA Red Seal 09026-61934-2
Cello Concertos nos. 1 & 2, Concertino, Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Jiří Bělohlávek, Czech Philharmonic, Chandos 10547
Rhapsody Concerto, Three Madrigals, Duo no.2 for violin and viola, Sonata for viola and piano, Maxim Rysanov (viola), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Katya Apekisheva (piano), Jiří Bělohlávek, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BIS SACD 2030
The String Quartets, Panocha Quartet, Supraphon 3917
Serenades nos. 1–4, Quartet (for clarinet, horn, cello and side drum, 1924), The Ensemble Villa Musica, MDG 304 0774-2
Oboe Quartet, String Quintet, Piano Quartet no. 1, Viola Sonata no. 1, Members of the 1994 Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Naxos 8.553916
Flute Trios, Promenades, Madrigal Sonata, Feinstein Ensemble, Naxos 8.553459
Piano Trios 1–3, Smetana Trio, Supraphon 4197
Sonatas for Cello and Piano nos. 1–3, Ariette, Sept arabesques, Sebastian Benda (cello), Christian Benda (piano), Naxos 8.554502
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Zdeněk Košler, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, Naxos 8.555138