Friday 2 October 2009

Martinů: his time is ours

Sorry to sound portentous, but there it is: three weeks of intensive listening have convinced me that everything Martinů has to say about memory, nostalgia, the horrors of war, the pain of exile and the ecstasies of love speaks to us more strongly than ever. There he is above in 1943, in his New York apartment with a photo on the mantelpiece showing (if you look closely enough) the tower in which he was born in the small Moravian town of Polička. Its Martinů Centre, which I can't wait to see, provided the photo for the BBC.

More I won't add, except to say that more detail will be unearthed in my ubiquitous appearances tomorrow (Saturday), Big Bohuslav Day. The Radio Three chunk starts at 9.30am with Building a Library on one masterpiece among at least a dozen, the Fourth Symphony, and continues with Music Matters*. Towards the end of the 12.15 slot, you can hear me in conversation with Tom Service and Norwich-based Martinů scholar Sharon Choa. If you can't catch one, t'other or either at the time, the Radio 3 Listen Again facility will be at your disposal for the following week.

Jiří Bělohlávek's first Martinů concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra won't be broadcast until Monday evening, but go and hear it live at the Barbican, it's a stunning programme (Mozart Symphony No. 29, Mahler songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn and the Musorgsky/Shostakovich Songs and Dances of Death with Gerald Finley, Martinů Symphony No.1). I'll be trying to cover all four works in the pre-performance talk in the Fountain Room at 6pm. That, of course, won't be included in the Monday broadcast.

Last night I saw Jiří at the new ENO production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (seen at its Brussels launch in the first two photos below by Bernd Uhlig). As we took our seats, he wished me a 'nice evening' and I said that 'nice' wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Still, I was expecting a lot, and I wasn't sure if my memories were serving me right in the first half. I saw the Big Mac's UK premiere at the Coli back in 1982. Eight years later, asked as part of a BBC World Service panel to give my thoughts on the outstanding new work of the previous decade, I cited Ligeti's magnum opus, and Nick Kenyon (now Sir Nicholas, no less) replied that even Ligeti had doubts about it, so if he no longer believed in it, who else would?

Well, many of the world's opera houses still do. Does the Big M deserve its frequent resuscitation? The libretto hasn't worn well, the noises are less naughty than they were in the 1980s, and the first two scenes, where death-lord Nekrotzar begins to establish his rule of terror in Brueghelland, don't seem to be going anywhere. The undeniably brilliant, and dazzlingly executed, idea of Valentina Carrasco and La Fura dels Baus is to try and draw the cartoon characters together as emanations of a body in revolt, the body of a young woman who seems to be suffering a heart attack in the film at the beginning and who then fills the stage as a vast model out of whose every orifice the characters pour or sing. This is Pavlo Hunka's Nekrotzar making his first appearance in one of two photos by Steve Cummiskey for ENO.

I remembered that it all comes together in Nekrotzar's ultimately botched doomsday scenario, and the production rose to the necessary heights here. It's a shame that in rightly praising the originality of the show, critics seem to have forgotten that ENO have given us two equally compelling stage pictures with similarly imaginative use of video projection in last season's Luonnotar and L'amour de loin. The video here carries the apocalypse-that-isn't very well, and the principals then take centre stage for the inevitably glib moral, which is totally satisfying musically at least (Ligeti gives us a passacaglia of far flung chords that knocks spots off the one in Ades's The Tempest).

The singers, inevitably given their ungrateful writing, make less of an impression than the orchestral sounds - some of them, especially the fantastical bourree, rather smothered - under Baldur Bronniman. Sue Bickley (Mescalina), Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss as the scatalogically-minded White v Black Ministers - seen below in the second of Steve Cummiskey's photographs with Susanna Andersson as the Chief of Police - and the astonishingly full, clarion counter-tenor Andrew Watts as pettish Prince Go-Go all made me laugh.

Andersson is a fluttery coloratura, not a patch on the last production's Marilyn Hill Smith (I think it was), though she does sound amazingly like a theremin when she shuffles on a second time under a camouflage net.

As always, the most striking component in Ligeti's purposeful ragbag of styles is his own chord-cluster skyscape for the morning after, almost as well done here as it was in the haunting adoption of the Albert Hall cavern by Jonathan Nott and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra for Atmospheres at the Proms. Gosh, someone has actually posted that performance on YouTube. So here it all is.

*both available to hear online until the end of Friday 9 October.


Anonymous said...

I listened to your very interesting talk comparing different performances of Martinu's Symphony No 4 yesterday morning. You mentioned and illustrated one version from the 1940s no longer available, by the Czech PO conducted by Rafael Kubelik, but did not mention another not currently available, by the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. This was an LP coupled with the Flute Sonata and a CD coupled with Symphony No 5 conducted by Otakar Trhlik. Although it is no longer in the catalogues, copies of the CD are listed (at a price) on Amazon.

You mentioned both Jiri Belohlavek's later versions with the Czech PO, where you had reservations on the last movement but had very much enjoyed the rest, so I thought it might be interesting to know whether your reservations also applied to the earlier performance.

David said...

I did indeed know of that earliest version's existence, but mentioning it would have confused matters still further as it's confusing enough for the listener to know that there are two Czech PO/Belohlavek versions out there (plus one more to come with the BBC Symphony Orchestra). I didn't listen to it this time though I heard it many years ago, and good as the Prague Symphony is (I heard them with JB at the Edinburgh Festival), the CPO is better still.

It's the policy of the programme not to mention deleted recordings, even if they ARE to be found somewhere. Kubelik was obviously exceptional. So, when I did Elgar 2 a couple of years ago, were the composer as conductor, three Boults and two Barbirollis - all deleted by EMI. It's a tricky situation.

I'd be more interested to know your views on the work itself. Though at least you're not a Turnovsky fan (who's been a little emphatic that he knows best).

And tune in tomorrow evening to the BBCSO concert when it's broadcast on Radio 3. The Martinu One was loud, brilliant and utterly exhausting as well as exhilarating to listen to. And the whoe programme was even more cunningly mapped out than I'd thought when I gave the pre-performance talk.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments. I am not sure I would particularly call myself a Turnovsky fan, though I do like both his recordings of the Martinu 4 - the one you mentioned and the later one made in his years with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. My impression is that I prefer a slightly less forceful interpretation of Martinu than you, though judging by Jiri Belohlavek's persusive and exciting reading in his concert last night he is tending towards your view.

In your interesting talk before the concert you suggested that, after Scotland, the BBC was a first in having all the Martinu symphonies in one concert, ahead even of Prague. I certainly wouldn't want to downplay the BBC's enterprise, but I think it's only fair to point out that the Czech Philharmonic will just pip them to the post, as their complete cycle during this season will be complete by the beginning of April. Maybe a draw if it is season we are talking about. And they do include the three post-symphonies and other works:

Symfonie č. 1 dirigent Jiří Bělohlávek 11 a 12/3/2010

Symfonie č. 2 dirigent Jiří Bělohlávek 15 a 16/10/2009

Symfonie č. 3 dirigent Tomáš Netopil 8 a 9/4/2010

Symfonie č. 4 dirigent Jaap van Zweden 1 a 2/4/2010

Symfonie č. 5 dirigent Vladimír Válek 4 a 5/2/2010

Symfonie č. 6 dirigent Sir John Eliot Gardiner 25 a 26/2/2010

Paraboly dirigent Eliahu Inbal 5/9/2009

Invence dirigent Zdeněk Mácal 8 a 9/10/2009

Rytiny dirigent Jakub Hrůša 22 a 23/10/2009

Polní mše dirigent Manfred Honeck 17 a 18/12/2009

Fresky Piera della Francesca dirigent Sir John Eliot Gardiner 25 a 26/2/2010

Dvojkoncert dirigent Eliahu Inbal 4 a 5/3/2010

Pasted from the 2009/10 season link on their website.

David said...

Well, it's always helpful to be accurate. Though I made no such claims for the BBCSO - I think I just corrected Ann McKay about the 'first to do a cycle in the UK' info because I knew about the Scottish one, and David Harman reminded me that London youth orchestras had shared a cycle some years ago.

This, however, is good to know. The Czechs here aren't entirely assiduous about promoting the cause.

Ray Latham said...

May I mention here that the BBC Scottish Symphony with various conductors and pianist are doing a complete cycle of the Piano Concertos in Glasgow, in November and December 2009. As the Dvorak Society's web master, I have put a page on our web site about this and other BBC/Martinu-year related matters (including a study day at The Barbican) at

Anonymous said...

You said you are interested in opinions. I've found the Fourth up till now the most difficult of the symphonies to appreciate - I've always thought the slow movement wonderful, and liked all the movements individually, but couldn't quite get a feeling for the thrust of the work as a whole, which I don't feel with any of the others. Following some of your comments and metaphors about Martinu's methods and intentions in your review I am now beginning to feel differently, though I would guess that the Fifth would always be my favourite (and the Sixth, but as you and others have pointed out, that is slightly in a different category).

I have wondered if Karel Ancerl felt the same way as the Fourth is the only symphony he never so far as I know conducted, whereas he did the fifth countless times and there are recordings of at least three of his performances of it. He left the fourth to Martin Turnovsky.

So far as my feelings about performances are concerned I have to say that I was disappointed with the Jarvi performances when I first heard them in the 1980s - I like the sound of the Bamberg Orchestra in general, and there is some beautiful playing in slower or quieter sections, but the effect and subtle contrast always seemed to me to be spoilt by charging heavily and headlong into weightier parts, shovelling the music rather than conducting it - every time, every symphony. I listened again a year or so ago and felt quite a bit more positive and enjoyed the performances but I still don't think I would choose any of them as a first choice.

Obviously I haven't done all the detailed listening you have but for the Fourth I think I would choose either the earlier Turnovsky or one of the CF Belohlavek versions if anyone asked my advice. Probably not Turnovsky and the sound shows its age a bit, though as you suggested in the programme Belohlavek is sometimes slightly lacking in something or other, at least at first listen. .....

(seems I must cut this in two as the screen says I can't use more than 1096 characters - without telling how many I have used!)

Anonymous said...

(continued)........ I also don't think I would have made the same choice as the Building A Library reviewer for the Sixth Symphony a few months ago (though like yours all his comments were interesting and helpful) either as both Neumann's performances are a bit too relaxed for me - again I might have suggested Belohlavek's recording (the first one for Chandos - again, as with the Fourth, it seems there will be four in a year or so's time!), though as that reviewer hinted the early stereo Boston / Munch recording, not currently available except from Japan, made a year or so after they premiered the work, is fairly special. Ancerl's mono, the premiere recording, also great in a different way, but the sound is rather faded.

If I had to give a recommendation for the Fifth Symphony I think I'd have a problem - so far as I am concerned the first mono Ancerl is not just the best, but so far superior to any other performance (including others conducted by Ancerl) I've ever heard that I think I'd have to recommend it first despite age. I know that the Czech Philharmonic / Belohlavek issue is due later this month, but I think the CD is going to contain the same performance I heard in Prague a couple of years ago and took down from the broadcast, and if so, though the new one might well be my best choice amongst modern stereo recordings, I guess I'll still have to recommend people to the old Ancerl one first or as well.

Though there can never be only one way of performing anything, I find the performances conducted by Ancerl in the case of all the symphonies (except the Fourth) and also the Frescoes and Parables have something special, he has an uncanny instinct for the shifts in mood that you mentioned, and for balance, never exaggerates, over-dramatises or coasts. This comes over even when the sound is faded or distorted. I suppose if you had to say anything was lacking it would be that he is never relaxed, as he never was in any other music - even in calm moments. Well I can imagine in my head slightly different but also great performances of Martinu that do sometimes relax more, but I've never heard one.

Incidentally I once read a review somewhere online where the writer preferred the performance of Martinu's Fifth Symphony by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney to the one by CF and Ancerl. With all respect to the Louisville and Robert Whitney, and allowing for differences in opinion and taste, and the fact that you do come across crazy opinions online, this is one of the rare occasions when a judgement completely defeats my understanding - I just cannot imagine what the reviewer was hearing and responding to that led him to his opinion!

JVaughan said...

Based on what we heard this past Saturday, the Martinu seems a most-agreeable work, one well-worth getting to know better! The wind figures which punctuate the opening melody remind me somewhat of a quick variation in the Brahms so-called _Haydn_. I look forward to getting better acquainted with what you regard as the finest slow movement since that in Sibelius's _Fourth_. Now I must decide which recording to eventually buy, your recommendation for the Symphony itself or the single-disc recommendation you made to me here last week. Since Maestro Jarvi is apparently more faithful to Martinu's intentions in the Symphony, I am strongly leaning that way at the moment. I have also done some reading on _The_ _Greek_ _Passion_, and can already understand, based on this, why you and at least one other, Mr. Hugill, love/find it so moving, though this, of course, does not take into account the music. And it appears that the two versions of it are reasonably, if not radically, different from one another, and Sir Charles gives us the revision. So there could be three recordings on the menu around the end of the month, these two Martinus and the Gliere, following my Verdi and VW cycles, the latter stopping for other English song and for Howells and including some seven hours of fairly-touristy cassette recordings I made during my 1979 visit to your Country. Yet one of the latter's jewels, indeed of all of my recordings, is an approximately-25-minute conversation I had with the now-regretably-late Mr. John Noble, largely, of course, concerned with _The_ _Pilgrim's_ _Progress_ but touching on other things as well. A further musical element among some others, featuring another of my passions about which I have told you, is excerpts from a visit to the Royal Military School of Music.

J. V.

p.s. On the way to paste this in, I was reminded about your _Music_ _Matters_ feature, and hope I do not forget to listen to that before it disappears.

It also occurs to me to tell you that tomorrow hopefully brings my first-ever complete playing of the Muti _Traviata_, to which I look forward.
Today's recording is La Price's last _Trovatore_, under Maestro Von Karajan.

Howard Lane said...

I can't hear Atmospheres without simultaneously seeing scenes from 2001 in my mind - not surprising as this was the first time I had heard anything by Ligeti. And indeed I'd never heard anything remotely like it before, 60s psychedelia notwithstanding.

So I should have jumped at the chance to see this production of the Grand Macabre (I guess that should be "Le Grand Macabre") but a review, probably in The Guardian, left me with a sense I might be disappointed with it.

I see now I should have ignored the doubters and bad-mouthers and just gone for it!

Catherine Nixon said...

from Catherine Nixon
I enjoyed your Building a Library last Saturday and look forward to exploring the recordings you discussed. You referred to something as "noble and INSCAPED"(my capitals).
Surely the word inscape, actually created by the Jesuit priest Gerard Hopkins, means that quality in which everything is infused with a divine, numinous presence, however humble its matter.
How about another Discovering Music?
Catherine Nixon
Clare College, Cambridge

David said...

Jarvi of course - as we should have picked up on - is available in hyper-cheap form, about £8 online for 3 CDs of ALL the symphonies. And as each has something incredible to offer, you shouldn't hesitate, JV.

Howard, aren't there a couple more Big Macs left? I haven't got the programme to hand to check. Someone should film it. Maybe they did in Brussels.

Yes, Catherine, I knew 'inscaped' was a Hopkinism (along with 'instressed') and I may have been a bit loose with my use of it, but your definition still holds, kinda.

Funny you should mention Discovering Music, as that's just what I've been up to, stuck in Cardiff Bay for a day in the BBC Nat Orch of Wales's New Hoddinott Hall with Charles Hazlewood and Ashley Wass. The programme was also filmed, so it'll be a webcast as well as a radio programme (and in a matter of weeks, I'm told). The whole is, I think, very, very interesting, and Ashley's performances of two late Musorgsky piano pieces aren't to be missed.

More of that when I jump off the current carousel. said...

Hello David,
I live about 25km from Polička, here in the Czech Republic.
I noticed that you have contributed to the BBC review program, you might care to have a look at my open letter to the DG of the BBC in relation to the program and a particular recording of the Asrael Symphony.
The letter apears on the General chat page of the BBC Music Magazine.
Kind regads
Geoffrey (Lazinov)

David said...

Greetings, Geoffrey. I guess that must be the forthcoming BBC Music Magazine, as it doesn't appear in the June issue.

I see from your site that you've released a CD of Peter Katin at the Fairfield Hall in 1965. I was too young to have heard that, but I did hear him playing Chopin in Croydon and Cheam a few years later. Still too young to know the quality, but it introduced me to music I've loved ever since. said...

Hi David,
That was quick! Good to hear from you.
I overlooked to mention that I was referring to the on line version of the BBC Music Magazine, the Forum pages, sorry for the oversight.
Here is a direct link to the page:
Kind regards

David said...

Well, I've read your letter and I think you have a very justified case - it does seem inexplicable that the Brno performance was overlooked after you'd gone out of your way to draw attention to it, and the way you describe it makes me want to hear it immediately.

From personal experience, and at the risk of alienating my employers, I'd say that some recordings - and they do have to be currently available, of course - do slip through the net when the list is compiled in the office. But there's no intention to exclude smaller labels, so long as they can be found in the standard listings. For my BaL on Elgar's Second Symphony, for instance, I found we were in the ludicrous position of not having any of Boult's recordings. After some pressure and liaison with the small independent label Beulah, we managed to persuade them to issue a fresh set of pressings of the 1944 recording, without the promise that it would be the choice, but safe in the certainty that it would be high on the list (and indeed it ended up first choice).

So you seem to have been unlucky in this instance.