INKPOT#53 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MARTINU Symphonies 1 & 6. Ukraine NSO/Fagen (Naxos)
Symphony No.6“Fantaisies symphoniques”
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
conducted by Arthur Fagen
[67’43”] budget price
by Chia Han-Leon
I am a Martinů novice, and the number of Martinů CDs I own can be counted on one hand. The reason is not that I don’t like his music, but on the contrary, every work – eg. the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Nonet, the Field Mass or the Memorial to Lidice – that I encounter with this superb artist offers so much musical food for thought that I am unable to “finish” listening to the CDs I already own, let alone buy more. And to compound this, Martinů has to his credit, 14 operas, 6 symphonies, more than five piano concertos, 3 violin concertos (one double-violin), concertinos for viola, cello, harpsichord, etc.; plus ballets, choral works and a hoard of chamber pieces! In any case, when I realized that Naxos had begun a series of his Symphonies, I couldn’t resist. Not at budget-price anyway!
Martinu’s orchestral music is vividly and colourfully scored for a fascinating range of instruments, in particular percussion (including orchestral pianos). His musical writing, somewhat like Janacek’s, tends to use rather short phrases which just stop short of being a fully-fledged melody. As such, there is often an exciting rush of musical material presented which makes me feel that there is no way I can “catch” everything in the score even on repeated listening.
Yet, this is not the haphazard, “rojak”, every-conceivable-thing-thrown-in kind of composition which descends into pastiche or simply chaos for the sake of chaos. Instead, this is music of finely integrated form, neatly arranged just so you can sense the musical fertility of the composer, which also links him to his illustrious predecessor of the previous century, Antonin Dvorak (right).
The 38-minute Symphony No.1 (1942) begins with a soaring string theme which also has a lightly driving pulse. There is a mood of purposeful creativity: an excitement generated by syncopated rhythms and a very quick but smooth way in which the composer develops the material, resulting in a unified sequence of constantly shifting phrases and moods. This first movement is based on a theme from a medieval Bohemian chorale.
The second movement, a scherzo, is virtually an independent dance movement, beginning with a jerky trumpet-led theme. The clever use of percussive chords generate an electric atmosphere of irresistible activity. The central trio, marked “Poco moderato”, is a pastorale for winds, harp and percussion, a rich painting of brilliance and colour.
In all this, there is something of the nervous energy of Shostakovich. But in fact, Martinů was already 16 years old when Shostakovich was born, although the latter had already completed seven symphonies before Martinu’s first. In the Largo, a Shostakovichian sense of looming tragic sorrow rises gradually out of the depths of the orchestra, tam-tam booming, piano and winds swirling in enigmatic scales.
The exciting syncopated rhythms return in the finale. The grotesque woodwind march would not be out of place in a Shostakovich or Prokofiev work A curious staggered theme for strings and orchestral piano seems to recall a theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Listen carefully to the new form of the trumpet-led theme from the scherzo – it’s real fun to spot these things. There are intervals of calmer music, sometimes a little pastoral, sometimes in a jazzy, Gerswhinesque mode. Seamlessly, the movement strides broadly into its conclusion, a triumphant B-major surge of wild energy.
The 29-minute Sixth Symphony “Fantaisies symphoniques” (someone suggested “Fantastic Symphony” but Martinů wasn’t stupid) was composed between 1951-53. Written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it is dedicated to Charles Munch, whom Martinů (left) admired for his “spontaneous approach to the music where music takes shape in a free way, flowing and freely following its movements.”
The Sixth was premiered on 7th January 1955. The title “conforms to this desire for improvisation, for freedom, for perpetual renewal of the sound texture by internal rhythm, metre and colour.” (Pierre E. Barbier). It makes use of a F-Gb-E-F motif that is derived from Dvorak’s Requiem. This is a tumultous and dramatic piece of music that nevertheless has moments of great beauty, as in the joyous violin solo towards the end. The ominous introductory Lento (recalling the opening of Martinu’s great oratorio, the Epic of Gilgamesh) returns to conclude the frst movement.
The second movement, Poco allegro, is the Symphony’s scherzo. A moody and dark piece shifting between the major and minor keys of B-flat. The final movement quotes from the composer’s opera Julietta. Martinů confessed that the Fantaisies symphoniques held personal meaning for him, but this has apparently never been revealed. In music like this, however, the meaning challenges the listener to discover its secrets. And again, I cannot say that I have discovered more than a tiny fraction of its “meaning”.
In any case, this whole CD contains for me, evidence of Martinu’s symphonic skill, emotional range and neo-classicist wit. The Naxos sound, well-balanced, gave me ample opportunity to hear the many instrumental lines and the vivid colour of the symphonies. It was indeed comforting to hear the orchestra spaced out naturally, brass coming from behind, percussion across the stage rear, and the luscious strings swimming in the fore. An excellent introduction.
If you are in Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren). You can also order it easily from Sing Discs (Raffles City).
Always curious about anything that has a cyclical inclination, Chia Han-Leon is constantly embroiled in the art of cleaning up his room (after certain maternal protests) so that he can mess it up again.
Other classical music reviews by this or any other writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with the writer’s name.
169: 17.5.98. up.18.5.98