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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Works for Male, Female, and Mixed Choruses

  • Brigand Songs I, II * (1957)
  • Old Czech Nursery Rhymes (1931)
  • Three Part-Songs (1952)
  • Czech Madrigals (1939)
  • Four Songs of the Virgin (1934)
  • Five Czech Madrigals (1948)
  • Madrigals (1959)
  • Three Sacred Songs ** (1952)
** Petr Messiereur, violin
* Prague Radio Choir
Kühn Mixed Choir/Pavel Kühn
Supraphon SU3101-2 2CDs 42:04 + 50:51
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Light made audible.

More from Supraphon's continuing exploration of Martinů's huge output. I remember Supraphon and Panton as just about the only two labels that paid any attention at all to Martinů. Now, of course, the composer appears on even major labels with some regularity, and there have been several integral recordings of the symphonies. Yet, somehow I doubt that this boomlet would have happened without Supraphon. I suppose there are advantages to at least some state-run cultural programs. Martinů ranks undoubtedly as one of my favorite composers. Above all, the music invigorates me: it makes me feel good. He's one of the few classical composers who not only can set my feet a-tapping, but can rapture me out.

According to his main biographer, Milos Safránek, Martinů felt he had to solve for himself the problem of modal harmony. He liked harmonies that seem to rise from the intersection of separate melodies – as in folk music – but Bach and even Monteverdi were far too complex for the effect he had in mind. Before World War I, Martinů had an epiphany: a Prague concert of the English Singers, a pioneering madrigal-revival group, ancestors of Nadia Boulanger's groups, the Deller Consort, down to the King's Singers and Quink. The Tudor madrigalists seemed to confirm all of his notions and led to his creation of a highly individual counterpoint. Too poor, however, to afford collections of madrigals, Martinů for a very long time knew this music only from performance. Consequently, his notion of madrigal and the real thing may have diverged after the passage of years. Nevertheless, I believe that the Tudor madrigals also influenced, or at least found an echo in, his notions of rhythm – particularly in syncopations across bar lines generated from the juxtaposition of different lines.

In Martinů's mind, the madrigal was mainly a chamber contrapuntal form, best suited to small homogeneous forces and not necessarily limited to voices. Consequently, you have Martinů compositions labeled "madrigals" for all sorts of groups: voices, two violins, violin and piano, and so on. Not all of the works on this CD are so titled, but in general the madrigal touches almost all of Martinů's a cappella output.

Although one notes the exceptions of such large-scale pieces as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Prophecy of Isaiah, Czech folklore also runs through Martinů's choral works, particularly in the choice of texts, which come mainly from one collection of folk poetry. Unlike, say, Poulenc and Kodály, Martinů rarely used the choral medium to explore the writings of living poets. That's certainly true of the program here. The works come from the Thirties on, and – as we might have predicted from Martinů's compositional fecundity – there are a lot of them.

Again, much of Martinů's choral work explores the homogeneous ensemble, even radically simplified to all men and all women. The work for males, like the Brigand Songs uncharacteristically homophonic, works with the richness of the sound. The work for female voices outnumbers the male choruses by a lot, and here Martinů creates his characteristic syncopations. It's as if the relative lightness and radiance of the voices frees up his rhythm, especially in the Czech Nursery Rhymes and Three Sacred Songs, the latter of which adds a solo violin, thus increasing the contrapuntal complexity.

Largely, I believe, due to the folkloric element, the choral music foreshadows developments in Martinů's work that appear full-blown years (in some cases, decades) later. For example, the Czech Rhapsody of 1918 points to Martinů's work in the Forties. It's also this "early edition" aspect of the work that allows Martinů to slip a movement from his 1931 Nursery Rhymes into the 1952 Three Part-Songs without a jar. Martinů clearly shares an approach toward choral music and choral declamation with Kodály, especially in the Brigand Songs (1957), although you'd never mistake one for the other. The Brigand Songs exhibit the same dark, astringent palate as other late works, like The Greek Passion and The Prophecy of Isaiah. More often than not, however, the choral language sets an equivalent to the orchestral works, particularly the ecstatic dances of the Forties. If you like the middle-period symphonies and concerti, you'll probably enjoy these works. My favorite is the mixed-choir Four Songs of the Virgin, a work of great depth in which the life of Mary unfolds not in the sophisticated verse of Rilke, but in the direct poetry of the Czech folk.

Pavel Kühn along with his compatriots Miroslav Venhoda and Libor Pešek have all made names for themselves in this repertoire. The Czech choruses distinguish themselves by their lightness and flexibility. The sound isn't particularly large or, in my opinion, gorgeous, as even a small group like the Tallis Scholars achieves. On the other hand, they invest their singing with great understanding of the texts, and the sharpness of their diction could slice through cheesecloth. I complain only about the lack of translations for the texts and a few proofreading errors in the notes (Martinů died in 1959, not 1952). Other than that, a delight.

Finally, I've found a really good source for recordings of Czech music: Musica Bona in the Czech Republic. The prices are very low and the service excellent. [Unfortunately, no longer in business. -Ed.]

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz