Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Who, among 20th century composers, really solved the problem of a clinching symphonic finale? Triumph became difficult: in that respect, only Nielsen 5 is up there for me. But in terms of more ambiguous resolutions, I think of Shostakovich 8 and 15, Vaughan Williams 6 - and now Martinu 3*. It hit me with the force of revelation on Saturday, and I could hardly stop weeping.
Why? Because, having had his expected syncopated Allegro thrash, Martinu unpeels sad and exultant layers of beauty only briefly anticipated in the central Largo of this embattled symphony. It's going to sound dull if I just enumerate them, but I will: the tortured writing for the violas which climbs ever higher in search of release; the simple oboe figure - and then the above, what Patrick Lambert described to me on Saturday as 'sheer elevation' of a very transcendent kind. It's the concerto-grosso principle of bringing a solo string quartet to the fore, but having each player's section colleagues as muted back-up. You get that in a very moving passage of the Fourth's great slow movement, too. But this is even more complex, enriched by rippling harp, staccato piano and flutes, burbling clarinets.
And that's not all. It momentarily comes as a bit of a shock when the woodwind start brightly fanfaring in the symphony's goal-key, E major. But the massed triumph is short-lived, buffeted by discords. The strings hold on to the chord, but in three curt protests, the piano insists that perfect peace can't be left unchallenged.
This odd apotheosis is further complicated by personal quotations: the famous chords from the opera Julietta - by way, conscious or not, of Janacek's Taras Bulba - which mark out the hero trying to hold on to the memory of his first encounter with the voice of his beloved
and the desolation of a little three-note figure from Dvorak's Requiem, which Martinu knew through its quotation in his teacher Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony. There it marks the double loss of Suk's father-in-law, Dvorak, and then their beloved Otylka (Dvorak's daughter and Suk's wife).
I don't think it's too fanciful to hear the end of the Third as Martinu reaching out again to the great love of his life, the brilliant young composer Vitezslava Kapralova, who died all too young in the truly awful year of 1940, shortly after Martinu had come to realise that he had to leave Paris following the Nazi invasion. There he is, right, with her and her father above. It was a love of which his biographer, Milos Safranek, even if he was fully conversant with the facts, couldn't speak without wounding Martinu's long-suffering wife. The next few years gave all too little breathing-space to reflect, but out of the terrible depression of early 1944 came the Third Symphony. Its performance on Saturday I shall never forget, my first concert-hall acquaintance with this masterpiece. Attached as I am to my Bamberg/Jarvi recording, I'll be glad to hear how it emerges on the impending CD set of Martinu symphonies taken from these live performances.
On Friday, the unknown (to me) quantity of Lawrence Renes leads the currently overworked BBC Symphony Orchestra in tackling the other truly colossal memorial of the 1940s, Shostakovich's Eighth - a shattering monument twice the length of Martinu's, and very different.
I'm wary about going, because Rostropovich's last Barbican performance of it with the LSO, mercifully captured on the above CD, went as deep as it's possible to go in a symphony. Well, we'll see. What's for sure is that both symphonic endings give us some sort of qualified optimism after all that anguish.
22/4, post-midday: for those of you anxious to know about these things, the programme for the 2010 Proms is now up and running on the BBC website. I daresay I'll get into it again when it happens, but very little has me jumping up and down with excitement the way that the Belohlavek Martinu cycle or anticipation of Jurowski's performance of Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphony in the season proper have. JEG is doing Martinu's Fantaisies Symphoniques somewhere in a jampacked Czech Phil Prom but not, if you please, at the end, which is the only rightful place for it.
*an afterthought - perhaps I should have said post World War One, because Sibelius 5 provides another sturdy specimen of the triumphant, and the Sixth another example of beautiful ambiguity.