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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
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]
* World Premičre Recordings
Jana Hrochovŕ (mezzo-soprano)
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. 2017, Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano
NAXOS 8.573823 [55:44]

Those who may think they know Martinů because they know his symphonies and chamber music, including 7 string quartets, or his 5 piano concertos, 2 cello concertos and his violin concertos or perhaps less likely his 15 operas and 14 ballet scores (among other genres he exploited), will find a wealth of material to surprise and delight in the long list of songs he wrote which number over 150. There are seven world premičre recordings amongst this latest and final release of Martinů’s songs, three of which were unearthed just weeks before the recording took place, thanks to the incredible persistence of pianist Giorgio Koukl to whom Martinů lovers owe a huge debt of thanks.

Just as Russian and English song (and many others of course) have national characteristics which immediately identify as to where they emanate from so these songs could not have come from any other country than Czechoslovakia, or, for that matter from the pen of any other composer than Martinů. They are shot through with folk elements and, coupled with Martinů’s unique style, they are irresistible.

Giorgio Koukl, who accompanies Jana Hrochovŕ and who wrote the liner notes, quotes the following statement by Martinů:

My whole life has moved concurrently along two opposing lines: between a kind of innate and genuine naiveté (probably somewhat infantile) and the other pole of consciousness, knowledge and intelligence taught to me by life… I have never been an upholder of dualism, but my view is that art is at the point where these two meet.

As if to back up this statement Nadia Boulanger said, ‘his music was brilliant and pure’ while Arthur Honegger said, ‘it can win the most sophisticated and the most simple listener’. These are the features that attract me to his music; that perfect combination of innocence and sophistication and there could hardly be better examples of them than in the songs. It couldn’t be otherwise since as Giorgio Koukl writes ‘Of more than six hours of music written for voice and piano, more than 75 per cent was written using Czech folk text, expressing a deep sorrow’ for Martinů always wished, but couldn’t, return to his native land as he was considered persona non grata by the Communist authorities. This anxious and heartfelt yearning comes through extremely strongly in much of his music and most palpably in his songs.

The disc opens with Nový Špalíček (‘New Anthology’) written when Martinů was in New York in 1942 and which obtained a seal of approval when taken up by Jan Masaryk, the Czech Foreign Minister at the time who it was said committed suicide shortly after the Communist coup of February 1948 by jumping from his apartment in Prague’s Černín Palace. Masaryk was a competent amateur pianist and enjoyed playing these songs alongside mezzo-soprano Jarmila Novotná several times, mainly in New York. There are eight songs in this little group, most of which are upbeat in their mood though I most enjoyed the sad ones, Jilted lover, Longing, Sad lover, Entreaty and Tall tower. There then follows a group of four songs, written in 1940 to Czech folk texts while Martinů awaited the chance to escape France which he only achieved thanks to help from the pianist Rudolf Firkušný and conductor Ernest Ansermet who saw to it that he and his wife received visas for Lisbon from where they caught a ship to New York. Often it is only composers like Martinů, Bartók and Zoltán Kodály whose use of folk song rescues them from oblivion which ever greater urbanisation consigns them to.

There then follows Three Songs after poems by Guillaume Apollinaire which almost since their first appearance had been thought lost. I must say I always have great admiration for singers who sing songs in their original language when that language is not theirs (imagine English singers who tackle Czech or any non-English speaker singing in English) so it is with regret that for whatever reason these songs are not sung here in French. Fitting the hard sound of Czech into the music is quite a feat but I would love to know how they would sound with the far softer French; when a line like Hle andělé, andělé při nebeském ráji reverts to Les anges les anges dans le ciel. Now these songs have been rediscovered hopefully someone will record them again in their original form.

I was really surprised to read that Martinů was only 22 when he wrote From Childhood (Z dětství) treating the sad reflection of someone old looking back upon happier times when they were young and carefree and with music that really highlights those feelings so perfectly though there are four more songs written when he was just as young. The Four Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes that follow this are the tiniest of gems with a total of only a fraction over a minute. Carol of Love and The Jilted Maiden are beautifully written and, interestingly, Jašek’s Song has a distinctive Hungarian sound to it. Another song that treats serious matters written while he was on holiday in the summer aged only 22 is the lovely song Talk to me further.

Two Ballads to Folk Texts concentrate more on the words without reliance on folk melodies to point up the text and the more serious note continues with another early song You write to me. Given that both this song and From Childhood were on manuscripts that were difficult to read, requiring careful reconstruction, we are lucky indeed to have them. Best wishes to Mother sounds sadder than the title implies but the music is attractive nevertheless with words by Jiří Mucha, son of the famous artist Alfons Mucha whose art nouveau posters came to symbolise the ‘fin de sičcle’ of the 19th century. Then comes another song to words by Apollinaire which once again would be so much better in French and it seemed to me that the English translation (available on Naxos’ website together with the Czech) has been translated from the Czech rather than the French. Any French speakers will be interested to read the original words for the four songs on Apollinaire’s poetry (all from Alcools, 1913) which they will find online if not on their bookshelves. Peach blossom to words by Chinese poet Chan Yo Sun is a very lovely song and the longest of all 34 at well over four minutes and into which Martinů manages to inject a hint of Chinese melody.

The following Three Songs for Christmas are funny and amusing rhymes for children with imitations of a hen, a chick and a kitten, this last liberally peppered with cries of mňau, mňau (miaou, miaou) and to finish and also written in 1929 is Vocalise which it was interesting to read was published together with similar ‘songs without words’ by Rachmaninov, Honegger and Villa-Lobos among others.

Giorgio Koukl ends his notes by saying how thrilled he is to be able, after many years of hard work and intensive study to present to the listening public these songs in their entirety which he says he is sure will contribute towards making “Martinů’s vocal work better known and available to all”; so am I. Giorgio Koukl is of course a brilliant soloist, having recorded many concertos, including Martinů’s as well as solo works by the bucket load (including Martinů’s) and since this dedicated work on Martinů’s songs was a crusade on Koukl’s part you would expect a sympathetic and accurate accompaniment which, of course you get; you can almost feel his urging of the singer to do her best for the composer. However, I do have reservations about Jana Hrochova’s voice this time as I think it is perhaps a shade too low for many of the songs which could often have done with a lighter slightly higher voice since hers has a very operatic sound to it and I note that indeed she is an opera singer with roles like Carmen in her repertoire and I can well imagine she would make a wonderful Carmen, all power and fury. These songs I feel require more delicacy. Incidentally Naxos seems unable to settle on a name for her and with each issue call her variously Jana Hrochovŕ, Jana Wallingerovŕ and Jana Hrochovŕ-Wallingerovŕ – make your mind up Naxos! Finally it was nice to see that for this final issue Naxos have used a relevant picture for the cover by Angel Gerdzhikov, a Bulgarian artist of note whose great depiction of an acrobat perfectly illustrates the disc’s title and reminded me of the painting by Chagall “Over the town”. The pictures used for vols. 1 and 3 were naff to say the least.

It has been a great experience to review this last disc in the series completing a major project which Giorgio Koukl has pursued in his usual dogged fashion and with the reservation as mentioned concerning Jana Hrochovŕ’s voice in some of the songs I nevertheless recommend it to all those who regard Martinů’s works as a major contribution to 20th century music.

Steve Arloff

 

 




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