About this Recording
8.557494 - MARTINU: Songs for mezzo-soprano and piano
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Bohuslav MartinÛ (1890-1959)

Although known for a number of significant choral works, not least his summative 1954 oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh [Naxos 8.555138], attention is rarely given to the vocal music of Bohuslav MartinÛ. Nevertheless songs with piano actually comprise a fair proportion of his output until 1930, with many of them still unpublished, or only recently made available in print, and covering the range of styles and genres in which MartinÛ worked during that time. The present disc, however, features a selection of his songs that were written during the 1930s and early 1940s, a period in which he moved away from an idiom heavily pervaded by French influences towards one in which the folklore of both his native Bohemia and further afield in Central Europe played a significant rôle. Several of the selections derive from two of his most important stageworks from this period, and all of the songs either anticipate or reflect the larger-scale pieces, whether vocal or instrumental, on which MartinÛ was usually engaged in what was one of the most productive phases of his industrious composing career.

The Two Songs (1932) make a well-complemented pairing: Peach Blossom treats Chan Yo Sun’s poem concerning the claustrophobic heaviness of summer, encapsulated in the lengthy piano prelude, to an elaborate setting which persuasively mingles languidness with anxiety; Automne malade finds in Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetic yet equivocal evocation of season’s end a tender melancholy which touches on a deeper pathos such as might have been inspired by Ravel’s celebrated Mallarmé settings. Apollinaire, specifically, his Alcools collection published in 1913, is also the source of the song Saltimbanques from the Three Melodies (1930), his picturesque evocation of acrobats inspiring MartinÛ to a characterful setting in lightly syncopated accents. Although it has a direct precedent in Stravinsky’s early Pastorale, Vocalise- Etude, also written in 1930, is a fully characteristic vocal piece, replete with the jazzy harmonies and rhythmic gestures found in the music of MartinÛ’s Parisian years.

Very different are the Two Ballads (1932), which draw on German folk sources. The Minstrels were wondering is a variation on the archetypal tale of a human spirit concealed within an inanimate object - here, a maple tree - which tells of its sorrow to passing musicians: MartinÛ’s setting is thus thoughtful and searching in expression, with an imposing piano part. The Orphan is a typically ‘grim’ fairy-tale of loss and brutality, to which the composer brings a plaintive realism often redolent of JanáÇek, not least the subtly attenuated piano writing, which fades away poignantly at the close. Closely related in subject-matter, the Four Songs to Folk Texts (1940) draw on an anthology by Karel Erben, the nineteenth-century author and editor whose writings inspired the sequence of symphonic poems which Dvofiák wrote near the end of his career. Of the texts selected by MartinÛ, Ponies on the Fallow Field is a genial reflection on the true ownership of the animals, while The Lost Slipper is a light-hearted skit on an object of little consequence. Religious Song is a simple strophic setting of tender devotion, then Invitation imparts a wistful quality to the subjects of absence and friendship.

Drawing on traditional Moravian texts, the cycle Nov´y ·paliÇek (New Almanac, 1940) is among the most personable of all MartinÛ’s song collections. It opens with 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 The Abandoned Lover. Yearning is a lively consideration on the attractions of fishing and star-gazing, then The Inquisitive Girl is a poignant reflection on the inevitability of death. The Happy Girl points the difference between ‘Sunday’ and ‘Saints-Day’, while The Mournful Lover focuses on the transience of love and contentment in suitably melancholy terms. The bittersweet Prayer is that of a girl in search of a suitor; The High Tower a nonsense-song bringing the cycle to a winsome end.

Coming either side of this cycle are two transcriptions, both by the composer, of dances from the opera-ballet ·palíÇek, figuratively speaking, a little book of songs and tales, which MartinÛ composed in 1931- 32, and which had its première in Prague on 19th September 1933. With a scenario that draws freely on the painter MikolበAle‰’s anthology of Czech fairytales, songs and nursery rhymes, this is the most immediately appealing of his numerous ballets, witnessed by the heady Polka and insouciant Waltz, both of which render the colourful orchestral originals in highly pianistic terms.

The Three Songs for Christmastime (1929) are both more extended settings of faux-naïf texts by French authors. The Chicken sets Thierry de Gramont’s verse about a recalcitrant fowl in engagingly childlike terms, as does The Little Cat with a verse attributed to Léon Xanrof about a kitten forced to learn about life the hard way. Meanwhile, the Four Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes (1932) are MartinÛ’s first recourse to Erben texts, in brief settings which range from the jauntiness of The Counting Song, through the whimsy of The Wild Dove and the charm of The Little Swallow, to the teasing Children’s Riddle. Slightly more substantial are Love Carol (1937), which sets a folk text of typically fanciful sentiments with an unfailing deftness, and A Wish for a Mother (1939), in which Jírí Mucha’s thoughtful reflection on the passing of time and increasing age is rendered in the straightforward but affectionate terms of MartinÛ’s maturity.

The final selections are drawn from The Miracles of Mary, the cycle of folk-operas which MartinÛ composed in 1933-4, and the première of which in Brno on 23rd February 1935 was one of his greatest successes in his home country. Christ’s Nativity comes from the third opera, derived from Moravian folk poetry, and is a mellifluous pastorale on the birth of Christ. Sister Pascalina, after the nineteenth-century Czech playwright Julius Zeyer, is taken from the fourth and last opera, a near-to-death meditation of such artlessness and fervency as are hallmarks of MartinÛ’s finest work, the songs not excepted.

Richard Whitehouse

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