Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
The Epic of Gilgamesh H 351 (1955)
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Derek Welton (baritone), Jan Martiník (bass), Simon Callow (narrator)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic/Manfred Honeck
rec. 2017, Dvorak Hall, the Rudolfinium, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4225-2 [51:08]
Martinů composed this ‘Oratorio for Soloists, Narrator, Mixed Choir and Orchestra’ in Nice for a performance in Basel by his friend and patron, Paul Sacher. Gilgamesh joined a list of modernist works attempting to capture the spirit of a baroque oratorio. Stravinsky’s 1927 Oedipus Rex is the best-known, but Honegger’s Le Roi David (1921), Walton’s Balshazzar’s Feast (1931), and Britten’s St. Nicolas (1948) are other successful examples. These works are high on ritual, cultivating an archaic and ceremonial sound that is typically more distant and didactic than intimate and engaging.
Stravinsky set his Greek story in Latin in order to increase its distance from the audience. Martinů assembled his own libretto for this Sumerian epic from the rather stilted English translation by archeologist Reginald Campbell Thompson. Martinů recognized that Czech words would make it difficult to find performances outside of his native land, although many subsequent performances and recordings have used a Czech translation. What provides the distancing in Martinů’s work is the story, which reads like lost scriptures for an extinct religion. Martinů does not seem to have been very religious, and Gilgamesh may have appealed to him for its humanist attempts to reckon with death and struggle over the meaning of life.
But the obscurity of the Gilgamesh epic has probably discouraged performances of this fine work. The plot is rather vague. Enkidu is a shepherd made from mud, turned into a fully human figure only when a courtesan initiates him into sex. After Enkidu loses his innocence, he attacks Gilgamesh. Following a fierce battle, they become fast friends. Enkidu’s sickness and death distress Gilgamesh, who fails to resurrect his friend, demonstrating a mortal limit to his power.
Martinů illustrates this sketchy story with some marvellous music. There are echoes of Martinů’s symphonies in this late piece, with rich orchestration, chugging ostinatos, chirping woodwinds and much uplifting music. The opening is quiet, as listeners strain to hear sounds from such remote antiquity, changing to audible splendour in praise of Gilgamesh. The fight between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is brassily dramatic, and provides an antiphonal choral commentary on the struggle. Part three opens with ambiguous music, beginning an earnest effort to bring Enkidu back to life. The oratorio becomes quite rousing (but not for Enkidu).
The Czech Philharmonic plays with complete authority, and Manfred Honeck brings his typical thoughtfulness to repertory beyond the late romantics he usually records. The Prague Philharmonic Choir perform as the real star of this recording, captured in first rank engineering. The four soloists are all fine, with Jan Martiník’s resounding bass making the greatest impression. Lucy Crowe may have the most difficult part, singing a ‘courtesan girl’ who embroiders the appeal of civilization to the rude Enkidu. How is one supposed to sing a bad girl in an uplifting work, mixing sexual allure and the higher calling of civilization? I don’t think Martinů has solved this problem, but Crowe sounds wonderful, both classy and seductive. Narrator Simon Callow is dramatic, yet restrained, although he does not diminish my skepticism about musical works that demand narration. In this case, I suspect Martinů, like Stravinsky, included a narrator to denote the seriousness of the enterprise. It also adds a note of faintly ridiculous pomp, as if in celebration of a kind of virtuous public culture that may never have existed.
It is difficult to imagine a better performance of this odd but appealing piece. I have only two complaints about the production. The disc is divided into only three tracks, which seems a little lazy. And at fifty-one minutes, there is room for another substantial Martinů work.