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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Saltimbanques: Songs - Volume 5
New Anthology, H.288 (1942) [10:24]
Four Songs to Czech Folk Texts, H.282bis (1940) [5:15]
Three Songs after poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, H.197 (1930) [3:26]
From Childhood, H.197 (1930) [3:02]
Four Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes, H.225 (1932) [1:10]
Carol of Love, H.259 (1937) [1:06]
The Jilted Maiden, H.67 (1912) [1:53]
Jašek’s Song, H.37 (1911) [2:11]
Talk to me further, H.66 (1912) [2:02]
Two Ballads to Folk Texts, H.228 (1932) [6:20]
You write to me, H.48 (1912) [4:15]
Best Wishes to Mother, H.279bis (1939) [1:18]
Two Songs, H.213 (1932) [7:06]
Three Songs for Christmas, H.184bis (1929) [4:01]
34. Vocalise, H.188 (1929) [1:29]
Jana Hrochová (mezzo-soprano)
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. 2017, Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano, Switzerland
NAXOS 8.573823 [55:44]

My colleague Steve Arloff has written a long and detailed appreciation of this lovely disc. It only remains to me to add a few impressions.

This is the fifth and last of an invaluable series of recordings of Martinů’s songs. Martinů was an extremely prolific composer, and some commentators are happy to state that it shows. Devotees of the composer will take no notice of such nonsense, even as they listen to passages, and sometimes whole works, where the composer seems to be in auto-pilot mode. This is because his best is just about the best there is. The wartime Concerto for Piano, Strings and Timpani is an astonishing masterpiece, concise, of its time, and as moving in its own way as, say, Strauss’s Metamorphosen. There are countless examples of greatness, both in Martinů’s large-scale works and in those more modest in scope. This five-disc series bears witness to that claim.

There is a fair amount of variety between one set of songs and another here, as there is between one song and another. But bearing in mind a duration of some 55 minutes – all of which seems to have been recorded in a single day! – and 34 songs, it’s clear that many items are very short. It is for this reason, above all, that collectors will want to dip in, and get to know this or that set of songs well, rather than listen to the disc right through as if it were a recital. If you begin listening at the Four Children’s Songs, for example, eight or so minutes later you have heard eight songs. It is impossible to appreciate the richness and variety at such a rate. And then, texts and translations are only available to download from the Naxos website – though they are admirably presented there – and many listeners may not bother. But they should: you’ll never know, otherwise, why the spirited and apparently enthusiastic Jašek (track 23) becomes despondent at the end of his song. Indeed, musically simple though many of these songs are, a real appreciation of them is only possible in shortish doses and with the texts to hand.

As one might expect, the musical language is more advanced in the later songs, though there are exceptions where the intricacy of the song is directly dependent on the text. I’m not sure how many times I’ll want to come back to the Three Songs of Christmas, the third of which, The Kitten, features as many different ‘miaows’ as you can imagine a singer producing. The Two Ballads to Folk Texts, on the other hand, are musically highly sophisticated and richly repay repeated listening.

This project – there are five discs in all – has been coordinated by the accompanist, Giorgio Koukl, who also provides a serviceable liner note. It has clearly been a labour of love for him, as many of the songs in this particular instalment were transcribed from manuscript sources and are receiving their first recording and perhaps even their first performances here.

The performances are excellent, though I share to some extent Steve Arloff’s reservations about Jana Hrochová’s voice. She is a sensitive singer who succeeds in lightening her voice to some extent, in the Four Songs to Czech Folk Texts, for example, or in the little Four Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes. But such is the variety of mood and style that no one voice would ever be able to encompass everything. Don’t let this put you off, though. The accompaniments are deftly delivered and full of character, and balance between the singer and the piano is exemplary.

This is an important disc that completes a valuable project. Martinů lovers have reason to thank Koukl for his scholarship and tireless advocacy, and to Naxos for allowing us access to it.

William Hedley

Previous review: Steve Arloff

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