MARTINU:  Symphony No. 2.  Symphony No. 4.
National Symphony Orch. of Ukraine/Arthur Fagen, cond.

NAXOS 8.553349 (B) (DDD) TT:  60:59

MARTINU:  Symphony No. 3.  Symphony No. 5
National Symphony Orch. of Ukraine/Arthur Fagen, cond.

NAXOS 8.553350  (B) (DDD) TT:  60:41

A year or so ago, I wrote the following (in part) about Symphonies 2 and 4 from Naxos' completed recordings—but not all six of them yet issued—of Bohuslav Martinu's canon:

These performances were recorded in Kiev (or Kviv, as Ukrainian nationalists insist it be spelled) in March of 1995—in other words less than six years after Bryden Thomson's notable recordings of the complete Martinu canon for Chandos with the Scottish National Orchestra. American-born Arthur Fagen leads more deliberate performances overall, which is not to say rhetorical in the pejorative sense, while the orchestra plays accurately and with gusto (if sometimes a little loudly). Timpani have been more forcefully recorded by Naxos' production team (only Alexaner Hornostai is listed in the credits, as "producer") than Brian and Ralph Couzens captured in Glasgow's Henry Wood Hall, a matter of mastering perhaps that re-mastering today might alter. I also hear greater clarity on the Naxos disc without spotlighting or hardness….

Martinu (1890-1959) wrote all six as a refugee in the U.S—from 1942 through 1948, until the last one was completed in 1950-51. He was Czech music's bad boy as a young man until relocating in Paris at age 30, where he knuckled down and studied seriously with Albert Roussel, whose energizing ghost lives in much of Martinu's music—an enormous output that doesn't always impart its full bouquet or flavor at first meeting. But one of his strengths is that you want to keep coming back for another "fix." The Second hasn't the overall personality of No. 4, written just after World War Two ended in Europe, but is the accomplishment nonetheless of a 20th-century master. Earlier on, Naxos released a Fagen/Kiev coupling of Nos.1 and 6 with a 1997 copyright (the new one is ©2000), which means that a coupling of 3 and 5 is yet to come. More on that, whenever. Meanwhile, the pairing of 2 and 4 is a genuine bargain and a worthy back-up version.

Fast forward to March 2002—seven years almost to the day(s) that Fagen recorded Nos. 3 and 5 with the Ukrainian National SO

They have been, listened to several times now, compared to the late Bryden Thomson's similar versions, as well Vaclav Neumann's complete set with the Czech Phil (recorded twice in fact: the first time in '70s analog on Supraphon, then digitally for Denon as a co-production, with more interpretive bite but still no teeth marks). Like the late Thomson, Fagen highlights the drama in No, 3, written in 1943-44 after the Nazi destruction of Lidice in revenge for the murder of Heydrich, the sadistic overseer of Czechoslovakia (about which Martinu wrote a separate and restrained memorial work). The symphony, however, reflects shock and anger: Thomson knew it, and Fagen knows it perhaps even better; certainly the Kviv players respond in kind, while the recording is the most powerful I've heard (here an engineer is listed for the first time, Andrij Mokrytsky, as well as producer Hornostai). Symphony No. 5, completed in 1948, gets a bonus from Fagen unheard elsewhere: he discovered and discreetly underlined the influence of Aaron Copland, Martinu's colleague at the Tanglewood Music Center, where both taught after the war. Given the fact that Copland had by then burnt out as a symphonist (his No. 3 was completed and premiered in 1946), Martinu's Fifth was more than a tribute, it was music Copland could have been proud of, and perhaps was. The same technical pluses prevail that made Naxos' issue of Nos. 2 and 4 recommendable, and this time both works are treasures. Get them, learn them, enjoy them, be moved by them.

R.D. (March  2002)