Martinu: Symphony No. 4, Estampes & Le Départ (APE)
Martinu: Symphony No. 4, Estampes & Le Départ (APE)

Orchestra: Belgian National Orchestra
Conductor: Walter Weller
Composer: Bohuslav Martinu
Audio CD
SPARS Code: DDD
Number of Discs: 1
Format: APE (tracks)
Label: Fuga Libera
Size: 294 MB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: yes

01. Symphony No. 4, H. 305: I. Poco moderato – Poco allegro
02. Symphony No. 4, H. 305: II. Scherzo: Allegro vivo – Moderato – Allegro vivo
03. Symphony No. 4, H. 305: III. Largo
04. Symphony No. 4, H. 305: IV. Poco allegro
05. Estampes pour grand orchestre, H. 369: I. Andante
06. Estampes pour grand orchestre, H. 369: II. Adagio – Allegretto – Tempo primo
07. Estampes pour grand orchestre, H. 369: III. Poco allegro
08. Le Départ (Symphonic interlude for Les Trois souhaits ou les vicissitudes de la vie), H. 175A

Weller’s second recording of this symphony, though fine, does not supersede his first

This is the late Walter Weller’s second recording of Martinu’s Fourth Symphony of 1945. His first (with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for EMI in 1979, released on LP in 1980) probably helped to raise public awareness of this work, which at that time was much less well known than it is now; the only alternative recording that I recall being available in the UK at the time was Neumann’s 1977 version with the Czech Philharmonic, part of a 2LP set with symphonies 3 & 5. Weller’s 1979 performance was excellent, but the analogue engineering was less impressive than in other recordings EMI had been producing in Liverpool – the woodwind were balanced somewhat closely, and this took away the sense of a realistic orchestral perspective. Neither was there much bloom around the violins, although it was clear that they were playing with considerable lyricism. A comparison with the spectacularly vivid sound quality Decca were offering Weller in his LSO/LPO Prokofiev symphony cycle demonstrated what was lacking in EMI’s engineering. A CD transfer was not issued until 2009, as part of a two-disc ‘Gemini’ compilation, and the sound characteristics remained unchanged in the remastering.

Weller’s 2007 recording has superior engineering, and a greater sense of orchestral presence. My initial impression was misleading, because at first hearing I felt that the orchestral textures were less clear here than in 1979 (and this affected my reaction to the performance) although on second hearing I realised that I was probably attributing the extra ‘clarity’ on the EMI recording to the artificial balances to which I have grown accustomed. Further acquaintance with the 2007 version convinced me that the orchestral playing by the National Orchestra of Belgium is good, apart from a few minor lapses in ensemble from the percussion in the second movement. The character of the two performances seems different, but I suspect that this is partly due to the difference in sound quality. The 2007 version has a more mellow and weighty sonority compared with the relatively edgy 1979 version, but this is balanced by Weller’s performance being slightly more urgent in the 2007 version. The timings in all four movements in 2007 are faster, even though the new recording of the slow movement includes an extra four bars that were omitted in the 1979 performance – these bars are included in the new Bärenreiter edition of the score.

The CD is well presented in digipak format, though this type of packaging is fragile (my copy arrived with two cracks in the plastic part that holds the CD) and an informative 32-page booklet is included. For many Martinu enthusiasts the unusual couplings (the 18-minute ‘Estampes’ and the 11-minute ‘Le Départ’) will be the main attraction, and these are certainly valuable; however, the Fourth Symphony is one of the composer’s finest works, and two versions of this symphony in a CD collection is not an unnecessary extravagance. With its wildly exuberant conclusion (a symphony in F major unexpectedly ending with a sudden switch to C major for the coda!) the determination of this energetic symphony to make a positive statement makes it just as moving an experience in its way as the more ‘serious’ Third Symphony.

For me, this 2007 version does not entirely supersede Weller’s 1979 version – which I will continue to listen to with pleasure – and I would hesitate to say that the new version is necessarily ‘better’. Nevertheless, if I was asked which one to recommend to someone who wanted only one or the other, but not both, I would suggest the 2007 version, mainly because of the improved sound perspective.

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