It's no surprise to me that Belohlavek is pretty well peerless with Martinu's symphonies but the efforts of the BBC Symphony Orchestra are a real ear opener too: they sound world class here. Then there's the small matter of the sound engineering: astounding! The clarity, balance and warmth of this live recording must surely be the best to ever come out of the Barbican. What an achievement.
As for the performances and interpretation: Belohlavek has made recordings with the Czech Philharmonic and I loved his recording of the Fourth with them. The Onyx version is a match for that. It would be the highlight but for the new life Belohlavek and the BBC SO have breathed into the Second and Third. The Second often sounds like a lazy, clod hopping country cousin but here it's lighter, incisive and classically balanced. I hear new details in the Third that I'd not heard before with the finale far better balanced than is usually the case.
The rest are all excellent but those two were real highlights for me. the same incisive, precise playing is heard in all with a conductor who knows what he wants and an orchestra delivering 100%. Each of the symphonies is neatly proportioned the emphasis on clarity doesn't reduce tempos - quite the opposite in some places. The expressive power of this music is never lost: listen to the slow movement of the First - it comes across as a picture of devastation unmatched in other recordings, including Belohlavek's own with the Czech Philharmonic. Impressive as these recordings are at first hearing you'll find more and more to discover on repeated hearings.
Despite Martinu's symphonies being very underrated there are plenty of good recordings, many mentioned here by other reviewers. You can even add the naxos series with Arthur Fagen. The great thing about these symphonies is that they are hard to ruin, being so neatly packaged as they are.
If Belohlavek ever gets round to doing the full set with the Czech Philharmonic and has these sound engineers working with him then this set might - but only might - be surpassed. For Martinu fans this recording is the best I've heard and a great place to start for those new to his music. Wonderful!
The Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek first recorded a Martinu Symphony over thirty years ago, and has recorded all of them except the Second before these recordings made during the celebrations in 2009/10, in some cases several times. These performances show the results of a lifetime dedication to the composer, and also of his work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra over his years as chief conductor. The recorded sound is fine - these are live performances but there is no sign of audience noise. As a complete set of symphonies it easily takes first place. There are individual performances from earlier periods on CD by conductors such as Ancerl, Munch and Turnovsky which hold their place, and always will, but amongst more recent issues these performances are not only unbeatable as a set but also in the case of the individual symphonies. It is interesting to compare the performances with those by the Czech Philharmonic with the same conductor, and that set, from Supraphon, should soon be complete also. Martinu had himself been a member of the Czech orchestra, who sometimes show particular insight into a phrase or aspect of balance, but the BBC orchestra in these performance on Onyx seem to win on enthusiasm and, surprisingly, in some places also on virtuosity.
I bought this set in 2011 and was so pleased with it I meant to write a review, but never got round to it; one of those things. I see that this has just been been given a 'Gramophone' magazine Orchestral award. I don't always go along with these awards, but they've got it spot on this time. These performances of Martinu's six symphonies are in every way superb. The BBC S.O. were recorded live, and their playing is not only exciting as only the best live performances can be, but they play as the equal of any orchestra on earth. Clearly they clicked with their then chief conductor Belohlavek, and the interpretations, well, they just blow away the competition. Hardly a week passed without my playing a couple of the symphonies; these were by far my most-played CDs of 2011 and continue to visit the CD player with regularity.
I have the Neumann set (very good, with typical spacious Supraphon recording); Bryden Thomson, which I now find more rewarding than when I first encountered them (on L.P.s); and the much-praised Jarvi set at an amazing bargain price on Brilliant Classics - I have tried to join the consensus here, but failed- I find that Jarvi makes Martinu sound too much like Shostakovich in places. But Martinu certainly isn't Shostakovich. You may disagree.
An important factor is the recording quality. These performances were recorded 'live' in the Barbican, London, by the BBC. That is significant, as many recordings from that hall, particularly on the LSO Live label, sound terribly dry and and close-miked. These sound far more 'open', with a hall acoustic, as though the engineers had placed the mikes further back. Also I believe there has been some limited, but very beneficial, post-recording treatment to open out the recordings further. Yet they remain full of detail that gets lost in the other recordings. The result is that these are technically the best recordings I've yet heard from the Barbican.
All these factors combine to make this a number one choice for the Martinu symphonies, in my humble opinion. A fantastic tribute to Belohlavek, the BBC S.O., and Martinu.
I have been a Martinu officionado for many years. Sadly, there are very few recordings of the complete symphony cycle, of which only Blomstedt and an elderly Supraphon recording were of any import. I am sure that the main reason for this is that of nationality, in that few can ever get beyond Dvorak. I am equally sure that this will change because of these superlative performances. Martinu's approach to music was unique. For me, the nearest composer is Bruckner with a hint of Schumannic lyricism. But any similarity ends with Martinu's orchestration which is rich beyond measure; a control of rhythm equal to Beethoven himself; orchestration in which waves gather and grow with smaller waves emanating all around; a philosophic notion equal to Mahler together with soft touching lyrical passages of great beauty.
The conducting is flawless, the playing is flawless, and the whole is an entirely fresh approach which demonstrates the huge talent that Martinu possessed. If you have read this far, I strongly urge you to buy this set - it will stay with you for many years to come.
And furthermore a 'snip' at £14 for the MP3 collection.
Initially Martinu's music didn't make much of an impression on me, but this set is a revelation. The symphonies were recorded live during concerts held in the Barbican Hall in London to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer's passing, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra more than rose to the occasion, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek, a compatriot of the composer's whose interest in his music has been lifelong. It was this fact that tipped the scales in favour of this set rather than that of the Bamberg SO on Brilliant Classics at a lower price.
The recordings cannot be faulted and this would be my own first choice. If you have an interest in the 20th-century symphonic tradition, I have no hesitation in recommending this set wholeheartedly.
There is no doubt about the performances of these six symphonies. They probably deserve the Gramophone's Orchestral disc(s) of the year. However, on my hi-fi equipment I cannot but state disappointment with the recordings. They fall into that 'sort-of-OK' category which is a shame. So, 5 stars for performance and interpretation - but only three for sound. Id give an over-all four stars. Pity. These are such deserving symphonies and need to be more widely known. I hope these recordings will help to do that despite my reservations about sound presentation.