Bohuslav Martinů spent much of the last decade of his life crossing the Atlantic, his teaching in the United States interrupted by stays in Europe, before settling first in Italy and then in Switzerland, where he is died in 1959 at the age of 68. But despite the turmoil, there was a final flowering of Martinů’s orchestral writing during this period, resulting in pieces brought together on this record.
The best known of these late scores is Les Fresques by Piero della Francesca, a triptych of movements completed in 1955 and inspired by the Renaissance artist’s sequence. The story of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesca in Arezzo. Despite the title, however, the pieces are not at all descriptive – more meditations on the mystical and philosophical ideas behind the paintings. The more or less symphonic form they draw is very close to that of the Parables, the major work that followed in 1957.
There, the starting point was very obviously philosophical – two movements are based on texts from the Citadelle by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the third on extracts from a play by Georges Neveux, who also provided the text of the more beautiful opera by Martinů, Julietta – and the moving harmonies and sense of music struggling to find its own way, and to express ideas and feelings that are perhaps inexpressible.
Performance under Tomáš Netopil are obviously idiomatic – these major scores are more or less repertory pieces for the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra – although one can imagine the added luster and refinement that a truly first-rate orchestra could bring to the textures strings in particular. But they are fascinating works, especially for British listeners, who do not often have the opportunity to hear this music in the concert hall. The other pieces on the record – an Overture from 1953, the symphonic prelude Le Rocher from four years later, and the three Estampes, the last orchestral work completed by Martinů, in 1958 – are true rarities.
The other choice of the week
Also from Supraphon is a disc dedicated to the orchestral music of another composer of Czech origin, Karel Husa, who left his native country to settle first in France and then in the United States, where he won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grawemeyer Prize.
The most famous work of Husa, Music for Prague 1968, an affirmation of Czech identity composed as a result of the Soviet invasion, headlines the record, which also features his second symphony, “Reflections”, from 1983. It’s a living thing, fundamentally neoclassical, though these performances leave a little to be desired, with a little wobbly wind playing in the Music for Prague in particular.