MARTINU: Songs (Jitka Cechova/ Olga Cerna) (Naxos: 8.557494)
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Bohuslav Martin?ø (1890-1959)
Although known for a number of significant choralworks, not least his summative 1954 oratorio The Epicof Gilgamesh [Naxos 8.555138], attention is rarelygiven to the vocal music of Bohuslav Martin?ø.
Nevertheless songs with piano actually comprise a fairproportion of his output until 1930, with many of themstill unpublished, or only recently made available inprint, and covering the range of styles and genres inwhich Martin?ø worked during that time. The presentdisc, however, features a selection of his songs that werewritten during the 1930s and early 1940s, a period inwhich he moved away from an idiom heavily pervadedby French influences towards one in which the folkloreof both his native Bohemia and further afield in CentralEurope played a significant r??le. Several of theselections derive from two of his most importantstageworks from this period, and all of the songs eitheranticipate or reflect the larger-scale pieces, whethervocal or instrumental, on which Martin?ø was usuallyengaged in what was one of the most productive phasesof his industrious composing career.
The Two Songs (1932) make a well-complementedpairing: Peach Blossom treats Chan Yo Sun's poemconcerning the claustrophobic heaviness of summer,encapsulated in the lengthy piano prelude, to anelaborate setting which persuasively mingleslanguidness with anxiety; Automne malade finds inGuillaume Apollinaire's poetic yet equivocal evocationof season's end a tender melancholy which touches on adeeper pathos such as might have been inspired byRavel's celebrated Mallarme settings. Apollinaire,specifically, his Alcools collection published in 1913, isalso the source of the song Saltimbanques from theThree Melodies (1930), his picturesque evocation ofacrobats inspiring Martin?ø to a characterful setting inlightly syncopated accents. Although it has a directprecedent in Stravinsky's early Pastorale, Vocalise-Etude, also written in 1930, is a fully characteristicvocal piece, replete with the jazzy harmonies andrhythmic gestures found in the music of Martin?ø'sParisian years.
Very different are the Two Ballads (1932), whichdraw on German folk sources. The Minstrels werewondering is a variation on the archetypal tale of ahuman spirit concealed within an inanimate object -here, a maple tree - which tells of its sorrow to passingmusicians: Martin?ø's setting is thus thoughtful andsearching in expression, with an imposing piano part.
The Orphan is a typically 'grim' fairy-tale of loss andbrutality, to which the composer brings a plaintiverealism often redolent of Jana?çek, not least the subtlyattenuated piano writing, which fades away poignantlyat the close. Closely related in subject-matter, the FourSongs to Folk Texts (1940) draw on an anthology byKarel Erben, the nineteenth-century author and editorwhose writings inspired the sequence of symphonicpoems which Dvofiak wrote near the end of his career.
Of the texts selected by Martin?ø, Ponies on the FallowField is a genial reflection on the true ownership of theanimals, while The Lost Slipper is a light-hearted skit onan object of little consequence. Religious Song is asimple strophic setting of tender devotion, thenInvitation imparts a wistful quality to the subjects ofabsence and friendship.
Drawing on traditional Moravian texts, the cycleNov??y ?Àpali?çek (New Almanac, 1940) is among the mostpersonable of all Martin?ø's song collections. It openswith the repartee of The Rich Sweetheart, in which 'He'and 'She' confess their devotion in no uncertain terms,and continues with the lovelorn sentiments of TheAbandoned Lover. Yearning is a lively consideration onthe attractions of fishing and star-gazing, then TheInquisitive Girl is a poignant reflection on theinevitability of death. The Happy Girl points thedifference between 'Sunday' and 'Saints-Day', whileThe Mournful Lover focuses on the transience of loveand contentment in suitably melancholy terms. Thebittersweet Prayer is that of a girl in search of a suitor;The High Tower a nonsense-song bringing the cycle to awinsome end.
Coming either side of this cycle are twotranscriptions, both by the composer, of dances from theopera-ballet ?Àpali?çek, figuratively speaking, a little bookof songs and tales, which Martin?ø composed in 1931-32, and which had its premi?¿re in Prague on 19thSeptember 1933. With a scenario that draws freely onthe painter Mikola% Ale%'s anthology of Czech fairytales,songs and nursery rhymes, this is the mostimmediately appealing of his numerous ballets,witnessed by the heady Polka and insouciant Waltz,both of which render the colourful orchestral originalsin highly pianistic terms.
The Three Songs for Christmastime (1929) are bothmore extended settings of faux-na?»f texts by Frenchauthors. The Chicken sets Thierry de Gramont's verseabout a recalcitrant fowl in engagingly childlike terms,as does The Little Cat with a verse attributed to LeonXanrof about a kitten forced to learn about life the hardway. Meanwhile, the Four Children's Songs andNursery Rhymes (1932) are Martin?ø's first recourse toErben texts, in brief settings which range from thejauntiness of The Counting Song, through the whimsy ofThe Wild Dove and the charm of The Little Swallow, tothe teasing Children's Riddle. Slightly more substantialare Love Carol (1937), which sets a folk text of typicallyfanciful sentiments with an unfailing deftness, and AWish for a Mother (1939), in which Jiri Mucha'sthoughtful reflection on the passing of time andincreasing age is rendered in the straightforward butaffectionate terms of Martin?ø's maturity.
The final selections are drawn from The Miracles ofMary, the cycle of folk-operas which Martin?ø composedin 1933-4, and the premi?¿re of which in Brno on 23rdFebruary 1935 was one of his greatest successes in hishome country. Christ's Nativity comes from the thirdopera, derived from Moravian folk poetry, and is amellifluous pastorale on the birth of Christ. SisterPascalina, after the nineteenth-century Czechplaywright Julius Zeyer, is taken from the fourth andlast opera, a near-to-death meditation of such artlessnessand fervency as are hallmarks of Martin?ø's finest work,the songs not excepted.Richard Whitehouse