It has been a hugely enjoyable experience becoming acquainted with the contents of this box. By which I mean that I have been bought repeatedly to a state of enjoyment by a composer whose earnest intent, it would seem, was to be a positive force for happiness and goodness in the world. I know nothing else of Martinu's oeuvre, or how representative these sumptuous canvasses are, but I can say that here we have six very fine symphonies, none of them inferior, full of passion, light and force. The works are fundamentally tonal, eminently approachable, but spiced with just enough dissonance and fresh, surprising chord progressions here and there to qualify them for the modernist label. Diaghilev era Stravinsky, and even jazz age Gershwin are often bought to mind. Not really a composer of big tunes but one who can extract endless interest from small motivic cells. He has a penchant for the juxtaposing and overlaying of rhythmic textures that sort of anticipates the more interesting experiments of the minimalists, but only as brief stops along the way to wider ends. Above all, a master of orchestration, with a rich palette at his command, and an eye for teeming, tiny details. What else? Nature, sunlight, haunting mysterious moonlight, the innocent laughter of children, the knowing laughter of adults. Much more sunshine than shadow. Much more triumph than tragedy. Indeed only just enough darkness in all to bring sufficient seriousness to the works as to prevent their collapse into a particularly luxurious kind of entertainment. Spiritually speaking, in terms of its sheer positivity and joi de vivre, the closest comparison that comes to mind is with Michael Torke, but there is a playful wildness and knockabout rambunctiousness to Martinu that you would never find in Torke.
Arguably the best of the set, perhaps only by a hair, is No.4 (1945), in which the glories of nature are spelled out with an elemental vigour, that is possibly at the limits of what the massed orchestra can deliver and the human ear can safely entertain. Of all, Symphony No.3 (44-45) is the only one in which darkness has the upper hand for most of its unfolding, and is perhaps a reflection of the desperate events that were unfolding across the world in those terrible days. Still, as I put the box back up on the shelf to let them rest for a while, and to give their contents time to permeate inward, it is fragments of the mysterious, almost magical No.1 that seem to have become lodged into immediate memory. In particular its tremendous sequence of opening chords and swirling scales.
That Brydon Thomson, at the helm of the Royal Scottish, manages to pull these off with such panache speaks as much, if not more, for Martinu's cosmopolitanism and universal appeal as it does for the performer's scope. The front row Chandos sound is eminently suited to Martnu's opulent textures, and together they do full justice to the colour, meat and depth of these very satisfying scores.