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 you know produced, in addition to solos and duets, trios and quartets, a quintet, a sextet, septet, octet, and nonet? The young Martinu was deeply influenced by the folk music of the Bohemian-Moravia highlands, but his music is also cosmopolitan. As you'd expect of a young, impressionable composer who spent the 1920's in Paris, Martinu found other, more contemporary sources of inspiration: Debussy, Roussel, Stravinsky, "Les Six," jazz. But he eventually developed a musical idiom altogether his own. As Virgil Thompson once said, "here is music that ‘sings as well as it shines.'"
Martinu began writing symphonies relatively late. His First, commissioned by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony trust, was composed soon after coming to the United States in 1941. He was 51 years old. Thereafter he would produce a symphony every year through 1947. The Sixth would come five years later, a work also commissioned by the Boston Symphony under its then music director Charles Munch. This makes all of the symphonies mature works. Though written in fairly rapid succession, each has its own distinct character. The First is cast on an epic scale, and features a lilting, melodic first movement, a haunting, soulful Largo, a peppery scherzo, and a rhapsodic finale. The Second Symphony is intensely lyric — a vision of elusive peace in the midst of the violence of the Second World War. The opening theme is introduced by a long-breathed melody set over sharply accented, churning rhythms; this would soon become one of Martinu's most characteristic gestures. The music that follows — a melodic andante (with hints of Dvorak), a playful march, and a thrusting and assertive finale — is completely winning. In stark contrast to the Second, the Third Symphony is dissonant and brooding, one of the Martinu's darkest works in any form. The Fourth is its polar opposite, and remains Martinu's most popular and frequently played symphony. Its buoyant, festive optimism celebrates the end of the war. Oddly the Fifth Symphony strikes a tense and ever shifting balance between the somber tone of the Third Symphony and the infectious gaiety of the Fourth. But for me the Sixth Symphony (subtitled "Fantaisies symphoniques") is Martinu's greatest achievement in the form, though it's more a set of variations than a study in strict sonata form. Alternately surreal and restless, it's a series of luminous surprises.
Though there have been outstanding, individual recordings of the major symphonies--Kubelik's Fourth, Ancerl's Fifth, Munch's Sixth, to name only three---a definitive cycle of the complete symphonies has been a long time coming. The sets by Bryden Thompson, Vaclav Neumann, and Arthur Fagan are well intentioned and competent, but each is compromised by literal-minded and unimaginative interpretations. Neeme Jarvi (with the Bamberg Symphony on the BIS label) is very good in the early symphonies, less so in the later ones. Belohlavek began two promising cycles with the Czech Philharmonic (for Supraphon and Chandos), but neither saw completion. Now, with his estimable BBC forces, he has finally made it across the finish line, and given us the definitive accounts that many of us have been waiting for. In brief, Belohlavek has the full measure of each of these works. He summons up the orchestral magic of Martinu's highly specialized sound world: what the critic Micheal Steinberg called a "breathtaking range of coruscations, phosphoresences, and lambent half-lights." He's able to somehow balance the neo-classicism of the first two symphonies with the trance-like, intuitive structures that characterize the last four. Best of all, he is able to tease a distinctly Bohemian sound out of his British musicians. My one caveat here is the recording. It's certainly good enough, well balanced and clear. But I sometimes miss the transparency these richly orchestrated works need to be fully understood. In this respect, the Jarvi set is to be preferred. But on musical grounds, Belohlavek stands alone. If you're willing to put up with sound that is not demonstration quality, these performances are highly recommended.
Critics like to say that Martinu's music is an acquired taste. But I grew up in Boston where Charles Munch regularly programmed his works, and that familiarity bred a love for the composer that has never diminished. Here is music that is tonal, accessible, tart and sweet in equal turns, mysterious, richly melodic, and often stirring. For newcomers, I couldn't think of a better introduction to the composer than these superb performances. For those in the know, this set is self-recommending.