Recordings of Martin ̊u have exploded over the last 15 years, leaving the intrepid Martin ̊u-explorer with an embarrassment of riches to choose from.
[HA42] The Symphonies[HA42]:
A magician is needed to conjure the magic in Martin ̊u’s music. Martin ̊u is such an idiosyncratic composer that the right performance is vital to bringing out its special character. Czech conductor Karel Anˇcerl made Martin ̊u’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, An ˇcerl’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 ‘‘Anˇcerl Gold Edition’’. Anˇcerl’s interpretations of The Parables and Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca are just 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 be found second hand.
Their sound is dim, but An ˇcerl’s fire burns through.
There are an increasing number of recordings of the symphonies, available in mostly modern sound. BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ji ˇrí B ̆elohlávek 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 needs excellence, not adequacy, to convince. Vladimír Válek and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (Supraphon again) achieves that better than most modern cycles, with transparent, tight, bare-knuckle performances in bright sound, undisturbed by audience noises.
The most successful set is the newest, with Martin ̊u veteran Jiˇrí B ˇelohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (on Onyx), which succeeds like no one since the older, classic accounts in convincingly detailing the dark colors and nuances of these symphonies. 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 Martin ̊u’s distinctive peculiarities and plays these symphonies
as if they were more conventional compositions, and it works amazingly well.
Toccata Press has published Martin ̊u and the Symphony by Michael Crump. It is, unbelievably, the first complete study of these magical symphonic works and thus a must for Martin ̊u lovers.
Complete Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ji ˇrí B ˇelohlávek, Onyx 4061
Complete Symphonies, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vladimír Válek, Supraphon 3940
Complete Symphonies, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, brilliant Classics 8950
Symphonies 5, 6, Memorial to Lidice (An ˇcerl Gold Edition 34), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Karel Anˇcerl, Supraphon 3694
Overture, Rhapsody for Large Orchestra, Sinfonia concertante no. 1, Concerto Grosso, Parables, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’ Ji ˇríB ˇelohlávek, Supraphon 3743
Sinfonietta Giocosa, Sinfonietta la Jolla, and Toccata e Due Canzoni, The Bournemouth Sinfonietta’ Thomas Vásáry, Chandos 8859
Field Mass, Double Concerto, Frescoes ofPiero della Francesca Czech Phil-
harmonic Orchestra, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra Charles Mackerras (conductor) Supraphon 3276
Complete Piano Concertos, Emil Leichner, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Ji ˇrí Bélohlávek, Supraphon 1313
Piano Concertos nos. 2–4, Rudolf Firkušny, and the Czech Philharmonic, under Libor Pesek, RCA Red Seal 09026-61934-2[HA43]
Cello Concertos nos. 1 & 2, Concertino, Raphael Wallfisch (cello),
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Ji ˇrí B ˇelohlávek, Chandos 10547
Quartets nos. 1 & 2, Naxos 8. 553782
Quartets nos. 3 & 6, Naxos 8.553783
Quartets nos. 4, 5 & 7, Naxos 8.553784
Serenades nos. 1–4 and Quartet (1924), The Ensemble Villa Musica, MDG 304 0774-2
Oboe Quartet, String Quintet, Piano Quartet no. 1, and Viola Sonata no. 1, Naxos 8.553916
Flute Trios, Promenades, and Madrigal Sonata, Naxos 8.553459
Piano Trios nos. 2 & 3, The Bekova Sisters, Chandos 9632
Sonatas for Cello and Piano nos. 1–3, Ariette, and Sept Arabesques, Sebastian Benda (cello) and Christian Benda (piano), Naxos 8.554502
The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Slovak Philharmonic Choir and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, under Zdenek Kosler, Naxos 8.555138