In Bob Reilly’s “listener’s guide to the recovery of modern music”, Surprised by Beauty, his chapter on Martinů has always been a favorite. It endeared and properly introduced a composer to me whom I had wanted to get to know but hadn’t gotten a personal introduction to, yet. I can’t say that it was love-at-first listen. Granted, love-at-first-listen, generally speaking, isn’t Martinů’s M.O. But it was intrigue-at-first-knowing – an intrigue that is only increasing and deepening as I continue to explore and discover his music.
When I had the good fortune of contributing the expanded second edition of said book, I gently injected myself in the ‘Recommended Recordings’ section of the Martinů chapter. But still, my discovery – or for that matter Bob’s, I dare to presume – hadn’t nearly been finished. Not the least because record companies happily continue cranking out superb releases of Martinů, both rarities and relative repertoire staples.
Bob had written that “Martinů was able to fashion an inimitably unique musical language that distinguishes each of his mature compositions and brings his name to mind within the space of a few bars”. Now even though my Martinů-love is by now a number of years old, I’m only just beginning to truly understand what he means and, more importantly, feel the same way. I have by now learned to love his music and yet the discovery continues unabated.
A Symphonic Detour
Among the staples are the symphonies. They are what constitute his legacy, even though he didn’t begin to compose them until he was already in his 50s. By my count, there are now seven complete integral cycles of his six symphonies – not an overwhelming number, compared to nearly 200 Beethoven symphony cycles – but full of goodies and with a heartening variety of interpretative takes. The most recent comes from the Vienna RSO (Marin Alsop’s new band!) under Cornelius Meister (Capriccio) who, when he was on form, turned out a few very nice performances with that group. In Martinů, a composer apparently dear to Meister, he certainly was on. The performances at the Vienna Konzerthaus were, to the extent I heard them, excellent concerts and the results translate well on CD.
For those on a British diet of record-reviewing, Jiří Bělohlávek’s cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Onyx) will be the front-runner for their attention and shelf-space. In modern sound and with someone at the helm who knows his Martinů intimately, it is certainly a good choice. Myself, I haven’t found a cycle which to pledge abject, absolute devotion to. If forced to name a favorite, it would also be a Radio Orchestra’s cycle with a less well-known conductor: Vladimír Válek’s survey with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (Supraphon). There’s a grainy, gritty element to these readings that keep me in suspense. But for the most part, I like to mix and match among a variety of performances and Meister/Vienna is well part of that mix. (Remy Franck just gave it his “International Classical Music Awards” Award for ‘best new symphonic recording’ of the year.)
A Bouquet of Flowers
B.Martinů, A Bouquet Of Flowers (+ Jan Novák, Philharmonic Dances)
Tomáš Netopil, Prague RSO
But it’s not such a Martinů staple that inspired me to this post, it’s the relatively obscure Bouquet of Flowers. The full-on Bohemian neo-classicism evokes hints of Orff’s Carmina Burana or might make one sense touches of Janáček (perhaps from the Glagolitic Mass) or even Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride. But none of those hints comes through with any strength; Martinů retains his own voice, even as he was able to change musico-linguistic tack even more often than he had to switch languages, what with having lived for extended periods of his life in Czechoslovakia, France, the US, and Switzerland.
A collection of seven vignettes and an overture, Bouquet of Flowers is a highly effective drama (or series of mini-dramas) written for orchestra, soloists, and choruses and intended for radio broadcast. It is constantly enchanting and entrancing music, even if the words of Karel Jaromír Erben’s poems – the famous collection “A Bouquet of Folk Legends” – remain foreign to your ear. The singers and the orchestra – the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under the youngish Tomáš Netopil – indulge in this music with something that sounds like total conviction. This is the ‘lesser’ among the established orchestras in Prague – and you’d never guess it.
There’s only one other recording out there on CD, with no one less than the great olden goldie Karel Ančerl. He’s one of those conductors where Martinů-lovers begin to salivate, but the truth is that the Bouquet of Flowers is much better served by the new recording with all its clarity, precision, and excellent sound. It’s a more lively affair and more suited to making converts than the Ančerl, which will appeal more to the cognoscenti. (Not that those would want to be without Netopil in this work.)
The other work on the disc, Jan Novák’s Philharmonic Dances (“Choreæ Philharmonicæ”) is a gorgeous modern orchestral piece – vigorous, affirmative and catchy, just as its title would suggest, and with a positively rousing finale – that makes me run out and get more of his music. It’s so more than just a filler and it nearly holds its own against the grand beauty of the Bouquet. Judging from as little, Novak (1921–1984) seems a sure-fire inclusion if ever there should be a third, all-new composers edition of Surprised by Beauty.
 There is an Panton LP of it with the Czech Philharmonic under Libor Pešek out there… The Ančerl disc can be found on vol.8 of the Praga “Karel Ančerl Live Edition”, coupled with the Martinů Third Symphony, on a Supraphon Historical release, coupled with the Sixth Symphony and on Supraphon’s Karel Ančerl Gold Edition vol.12, coupled with the Third Piano Concerto. (Assuming they are the same performance.)