The BBC Symphony Orchestra continued to explore Martinu’s symphonic output with a revealing account of his Third Symphony.Chief conductor Jir Belohlvek knows his Martinu well, and delivered what turned out to be a definitive performance of this cleverly crafted work.
Completed in 1944, three years after Martinu’s arrival in the United States from war-torn Europe, the Third Symphony is full of bright promise, but also stalked by an uneasy sense of foreboding. The urgency of the symphony’s opening movement sometimes recalled Stravinsky and Bartk also recent exiles to the US in its restless uncertainty.
The central Largo was beautifully played, with the BBC SO responding to Belohlvek’s peeling away of orchestral layers. Sioned Williams’ shimmering harp playing was deservedly applauded at the end, as was Elizabeth Burley’s work on piano, which managed to question the optimism of the whole finale through the use of bleak, repeated chords.
Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements was also written a few years after the composer’s arrival in the US from France. But whereas Martinu’s third symphony was consciously planned and written within a few weeks, Stravinsky’s work is essentially three separate orchestral pieces built around fragments of music he wrote during his brief and unsuccessful stint as a film composer. The problem with the symphony, therefore, is that it lacks a coherent identity and doesn’t really lead anywhere. The BBC SO and Belohlvek did their best to forge together its disparate elements, but their playing was more academic than passionate, and at times the symphony came across as an odd pastiche of Stravinsky.
In contrast, the Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto was sheer dazzle. Barry Douglas’ frenetic but assured performance was almost dizzying to watch. Despite Prokofiev’s admission that the concerto was ‘more interesting for the soloist, less for the orchestra’, Belohlvek made the most of what opportunities there were, particularly in the comic touches during the third movement.