Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"
Paavo Jarvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Review By Max Westler
SACD Number: Telarc SACD-60616 (hybrid)
The prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu produced over 400 opus numbers and wrote music in every form and for virtually every combination of instruments. Many composers have written music for two to four instruments, but what other composer produced, in addition to solos and duets, trios, and quartets, a quintet, a sextet, septet, an octet, and a nonet? As you'd expect of a young, impressionable musician who spent the 1920's in Paris, Martinu was influenced by many sources — Stravinsky, Bartok, "Les Six," jazz. But he eventually developed a musical idiom altogether his own. "Calme, lux, et voluptue" is the title of a painting by Matisse, but it could just as easily describe the work of Martinu. As Virgil Thompson once said, "here is music that "sings as well as it shines."
Martinu took up the symphony only after he emigrated to the United States in 1941 at the age of 52. So the Second Symphony is a late work in spite of its number. It is also a war symphony, but not in the ways you'd expect. Unlike, say, the war symphonies of Shostakovitch, the tone here is calm, luminous, and intensely lyric — a vision of elusive peace in the midst of violence.
Though I fancy myself an admirer of Martinu, I've never quite taken to the Second Symphony, and it's good to learn that the fault lay in the performances I was listening to and not the work itself. The versions by Neeme Jarvi (pere) and Vaclav Neumann, both part of their integral cycles, are stiff, literal-minded interpretations that give us no more or less than the score. But Martinu calls for a response no less original and imaginative than the music, and that's exactly what Paavo Jarvi (fils) gives us. His handling of the opening theme — a long-breathed melody set over sharply accented, churning rhythms (one of Martinu's most characteristic gestures)--is both assured and winning. The music that follows — a songful second movement, a playful march, a thrusting and assertive finale — is richly entertaining. I couldn't think of a better introduction to the composer.
I was very curious about the Dvorak, given that Jarvi has already shown himself to be a thrilling interpreter of 20th-century music. His recordings of Stravinsky, Nielsen, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ravel and Lutoslawski have all been highly and justly praised. So how does this clearly talented young conductor fare in more familiar repertory? The answer is, pretty well. Here is a "New World" Symphony with much to recommend it. Jarvi is neither insistent nor fussy, and he doesn't mistake the composer for either Brahms or Tchaikovsky. Wisely he puts the emphasis on Dvorak's lyricism, without in any way indulging it. The textures are clear and luminous, the tempos conventional but flowing. The first movement is slow developing, but builds convincingly to a dramatic climax. The largo is singing, sensitively phrased, and intensely beautiful. Jarvi manages confidently the tempo shifts in the scherzo, and the finale has the requisite bite and thrust.
As a critic I'm obliged to note that there are more committed, idiomatic, and exciting versions of this music. In comparison to Ivan Fischer and Vaclav Talich, one classic and one soon to be classic performance, Jarvi is a little too even-tempered and safe. The performances of the Czech Philharmonic (for Talich) and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (for Fischer) make the Cincinnati sound generalized, too comfortable. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend this performance, especially as it comes with the considerable bonus of the Martinu symphony. For those who still need encouraging, let me add that the Telarc sound is typically magnificent, full-bodied and transparent. In brief, there's nothing on this enjoyable disc to dispel the impression that something remarkable is happening in Cincinnati.