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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů


  • Symphony #2
  • Symphony #4
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Arthur Fagen
Naxos 8.553349
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One is continually amazed at the recordings Naxos turns out. Exactly how this budget label produces first-rate performances with at least the same frequency as the larger, full-priced labels is baffling. Here we have splendid performances by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, one of the label's favorite ensembles these days, as not only its Kuchar/Prokofieff series attests, but much of its American Classics series, as well.

The Martinů symphonies are hardly unusual fare any more. I first became acquainted with them through the recordings of Vaclav Neumann on Supraphon twenty-five or so years ago. Järvi and others have taken them up in recent years and now there is a fairly large selection of recordings in this repertory to choose from. New York City-native Arthur Fagen, who has devoted much of his career to conducting opera, sounds perfectly at home with Martinů's music. His tempos are centrist and his ability to point up essential detail and effect proper balances is almost unerring.

His reading of the 1943 Second Symphony captures the composer's bright colors and joie de vivre. This Symphony is odd in at least one respect – the third movement seems to end the piece, but the listener is then given the vivacious finale as an encore. This is truly one of the composer's most joyous works, and it is an irony that it was written as the world was being ravaged by war. Fagen delivers the piece with as much energy, color, and vivid detail as you're likely to hear from anybody. If this were the only offering on this CD I would still recommend it, but, of course, there's the Fourth Symphony, a hardly inconsequential work, and again given in a vital performance.

The Fourth came during the closing days of the war, between April and June 1945. It's a good ten minutes or so longer than the Second, and quite a bit darker in mood. That said, Martinů, even in his melancholy works, finds it difficult to stay away from those nonchalant, chipper themes he was famous for. The first two movements are basically light in mood, even if they feature a more muscular sound than heard in the Second Symphony. But the Largo third movement is one of Martinů's most anguished expressions, a beautiful and intense outpouring of emotion over feelings that must have been inspired by wartime woes he felt on safe American shores. Its brilliant scoring, often chamber-like, comes across in vivid detail here, and the expressive depth of this movement is fully realized by the incisive Fagen. But then he and this Kiev-based group render the whole symphony with muscle and dramatic punch.

Naxos provides extremely vivid sound and enlightening notes by the dependable Keith Anderson. This is one CD that will appeal strongly to most fanciers of 20th-Century music.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Cummings