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Boris Klepal
Brno – mesto hudby, July 2015

Jana Hrochová Wallingerová with darkened voice emerges out of the fog of the piano—dense but not illegible. Martinů’s going on with the times, not only in music but also in selected texts—echoes oriental poetry was in vogue and used by Gustav Mahler’s Song of the country. © 2015 Brno – mesto hudby

James Manheim, November 2011

…an interesting collection of music for Martinů fans interested in his development. The Czech nationalist strain in these songs seems to carry forward into Martinů’s French period in a way that’s hard to pin down but definitely there. The Prague studio sound is fine, and Wallingerová is ably backed by accompanist Giorgio Koukl.

Ivan March
Gramophone, October 2011

A rewarding introduction to the (mainly) early songs of Martinů

Martinů’s vocal music is well represented in the catalogue, notably by The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Greek Passion, but his songs are unfamiliar and seldom included in live recitals.

Now comes a first-class and very generous collection of the earlier examples and a few later ones. As this disc is labelled Vol 1, presumably the rest are to follow…the songs are as beautifully and often movingly sung as they are here by Jana Wallingerová, and the piano accompaniments—a pleasure in themselves—are so felicitously and sensitively played by Giorgio Koukl, this CD affords much enjoyment. In any case, many of the songs are very short and so obviously encapsulate their titles, so one does not feel short-changed. The opening Six Simple Songs are each around a minute long and are immediately engaging; they are followed by Three Lullabies, of which the third, “Rocking and Swaying”, is particularly delightful.

All the items that have Halbreich numbers H81 or lower (except H74) date from the composer’s earlier years, from 1910 to 1912, and the pair of songs H31 are quite lovely. The touching “Tears”, the lighter “A Girl’s Dreams” and the nostalgic “When we are both old” readily communicate without translation. Among the later Children’s Songs, H146, the evocation of “The Christmas Tree” is particularly memorable. But the most unpredictably original item here is the sprightly (1939) Czech Riddles (based on folk texts), which constantly changes mood and tempo, followed by “bird talk”, echoed by the piano and climaxing with a harsh crow call! All in all, this is a most rewarding disc, throwing new light on its composer. It is very well recorded, too.

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, September 2011

Naxos offers good notes and a superb recording. No texts are supplied but they are available on the internet. This collection of early Martinu songs is an ideal start of the complete set at a bargain price.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, August 2011

Song was in important part of Martinů’s output, at least in terms of the number of works. This disc is billed as Volume 1; if further issues are as good as this one we are in for a treat.

There are forty-one songs here, which even those as arithmetically challenged as I am will easily see works out at an average of less than two minutes per song. This is therefore a disc to dip into, to listen to in small doses. Playing the whole disc will, I fear, transform the recital into mere background music.

Of the vast number of songs and sets of songs Martinů composed, the majority date from the beginning of his career. A fair number of the songs on this disc were composed between the years 1910–1912. Choice of texts in all these songs ranges widely, with many settings of Czech writers, but also some foreign texts, including Goethe and Heine, sometimes in translation, sometimes in the original language. There are also numerous settings of traditional Czech folk texts.

The Six Simple Songs are just as their title suggests. Based on folk texts, these are short, melodious and irresistible. Similar comments might be made about most of the programme, and certainly about the following Three Lullabies, as well as the second of the Two Small Songs in Folk Idiom, with its surprising semitone shifts.

According to Mark Gresham’s booklet note, the Three Goethelieder—over in less than three minutes—were settings of Czech translations from the original German. They are certainly sung in German here, however. Confusing! Truth to say, the essay doesn’t do much to help the listener find a way though this mass of material. This is a pity, since songs as short as this can seem perfunctory, and there are so many of them, and most of them so short, that listening alone could easily give the impression that there isn’t much variety. A little commentary on each song would help, and this, after all, is what the insert notes should really be for. Then things are rendered even more difficult by an error in the order of songs 30–37 as printed on the back cover and in the booklet. This has apparently been corrected online since my colleague Byzantion wrote his review, and listeners will now find the true order there. Speaking of the programme as a whole, appreciation of the songs without access to the texts is well-nigh impossible, so listeners are urged to consult the online texts and translations, inconvenient though it be for those of us who do not want to sit at the computer whilst listening to music.

Other highlights of the programme, at least for this listener, are The Goat’s Wedding, a Czech folk song, thoroughly delightful, the stout piano part ideally suited to the melody, and the sombre Dead Love. I also enjoy very much Czech Riddles, a whole series of them in one, with an important piano part, and which ends with the singer doing a passable imitation of a crow! Tears and Mood Drawing are also extremely affecting, though the waltz-like response to Heine’s tale of love lost in Night after Night in Dreams I See You is surprising and takes a little getting used to. The recital ends with a striking invitation to us all to sing the song three times before breakfast if we want our sins forgiven.

Giorgio Koukl has already recorded a lot of Martinů for Naxos, including the piano concertos. One would expect his playing to be totally idiomatic, and so it is, and he also shows himself to be a most sensitive accompanist. Jana Wallingerová is a fine singer who manages beautifully to tone down a naturally large voice for such pieces as the 3 Children’s Songs. One or two pieces elsewhere might benefit from rather less sophisticated delivery, but with a voice of this quality and singing of such intelligence one looks forward to hearing her in other repertoire, especially in longer works that will enable her to get into her stride. She strives hard to follow the rules when singing in a foreign language, and is quite successful, though her French, in particular, betrays her at times. The recording is superbly rich and lifelike, with an exemplary balance between voice and piano.

MusicWeb International, July 2011

Naxos have been good to Bohuslav Martinů: Giorgio Koukl has recorded his complete solo piano music in seven volumes and his five piano concertos in two; the Martinů Quartet have recorded his seven string quartets on three discs; Arthur Fagen and the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra have recorded the six symphonies on three more; and Naxos have published seven other discs of chamber music, plus one of choral (The Epic of Gilgamesh).

Naxos also issued a CD of songs by Martinů back in 2005—see review—but then seemingly either had a change of heart or forgot about it, because this new release is billed as “Songs, volume 1”. These are, however, new soloists, and all the pieces are different. Martinů wrote about 100 songs in total, so this is quite likely the first of three volumes.

There are forty-one separate songs in this recital. Though at a fraction under 80 minutes the disc is packed to the rafters with music, that still means an average of well under two minutes per song—in other words, these are not by any stretch substantial pieces, and it is fair to say that they are not among Martinů’s most important or profound works. Indeed, around thirty per cent of these songs were written before Martinů was even 23.

There are four songs in French—three anonymous, one by composer Gustave Charpentier—and three in German, to texts of Goethe’s. All the rest are in Czech, from a variety of sources—anonymous or folk texts, Czech poets and foreign writers in translation. Subject matter is extremely varied, and Martinů reflects that in his music, with humour, irony, tragedy, whimsy, bliss and melancholy, without ever resorting to cliché.

This is Czech mezzo-soprano Jana Wallingerová’s debut CD. She has an agreeable, flexible voice which she controls well. She sings the three Goethe-Lieder with a little bit of an accent, whereas her French is more wayward—an acute-accented ‘é’ here and there, for example, where none should be—though not disastrously so. She is naturally most comfortable in Czech, and although none of the songs is fiendishly difficult, Martinů’s immense imagination keeps her, Koukl and listeners all on their toes with a constant supply of unexpected chords, leaps and other musical twists and turns—all of which and more can be sampled together in the amusing Czech Riddles, H.277bis.

The song texts are not included in the booklet, but are downloadable for free as usual from the Naxos website. The translations are reasonably rendered on the whole, although some are less poetic than one might wish: “Tell me, Mother, what is it with people that they speak so ill of Friday? You are wise, so tell me, why do people shun the priest like doom?” “‘Tis then we go tripping through woodland and grove.” “Tell him he’s stayed behind to water his lovely little horse.”

Matthew Martinez, July 2011

This album from Naxos features no less than 79 minutes of music packed onto one disc. After a cursory look through the catalog, this seems to be one of the only CDs devoted entirely to the songs of Bohuslav Martinu. The composer’s songs are featured chestnuts of recital discs, such as Magdalena Kozená’s recent “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, but aren’t part of the standard repertoire. The obvious answer as to why Martinu’s songs are so underrepresented on disc is the language, as the Czech composer set texts mostly in his native tongue and like Russian songs, the barrier can be formidable for a singer.

The texts are from various French, Spanish, German and English poets, with the majority coming from Czech poets in the original language. The poetic content of the vast majority of songs is quite a contrast to Martinu’s German fore-bearers, who often chose from among the most dramatically vivid and narratively involved poems of their times. That’s not to say that Martinu set less than worthy poems, but they are of a completely different affect, often having folk narratives or matter of fact stories typically befitting an English madrigal.

Martinu thus adopts a style that is incredibly compact and efficient. Simple math will tell you this as there are 41 songs in the span of 79 minutes! Such a program is a challenge to stick with, particularly given the young composer’s formulaic endings to songs, which gives the accompaniment the last word in tidying up the moral or thought of the poem. This brings us to a flaw with this disc: the presentation. Given that there are 41 songs, almost all of which are in Czech and unfamiliar, it is absolutely vital that the texts and translations be at hand through the entire 79 minutes and Naxos does not include them with the disc. They give a web link for the listener to download all 11 pages of the texts. As much as I am for economy and conservation, I imagine this will be an annoyance to many listeners.

With my complaining out of the way, I will get to what matters most: the music. It really is beautiful and unique in its own way. Martinu was perfectly adept at setting these poems for which he obviously had a great affinity. There is a charming folkish wit to the music, which is highly effective. One of the most striking aspects of the composer’s style is the maturity and complexity of the accompaniment, which conveys the narrative as effectively as Hugo Wolf and his contemporaries did with the piano. The vocal writing is tuneful, yet not predictable, and Martinu challenges the singer in his phrasing and transitions, often navigating the voice and accompaniment on different tracks until they meet at the end. The most successful pieces on the disc are the ones that depart from the folk idiom and surprise the listener with their dark undertones, such as “Wreath of Carnations” and “Dead Love.” The “Gnat’s Wedding Dance” is a delightful story and entertaining song which finds the composer at his most irreverent and grounded in his cultural roots.

Jana Wallingerová sings impressively with a mastery of the music and authenticity of its origin. The Mezzo has a throaty, large sound that lacks some finesse and focus, but is always in tune and vibrant. Her most touching singing is in 2 Songs (H. 31) which are performed with striking sensitivity and beauty. Her diction in the French texts is not distinguished, with the German being a bit better. Giorgio Koukl is her brilliant accompanist providing Wallingerová with support and a musically satisfying propulsion. The sound quality is excellent. While not being a particularly “live” recording, it has plenty of warmth and the piano/voice perspective is excellent.

While discs with smaller portions of Martinu’s songs may be more appropriate for the merely curious, this disc will be satisfying and extremely important to the connoisseurs and academics who have never had a resource like this before. Martinu’s songs are worthy of such treatment, and we are lucky to have them in such caring hands.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group