10 Jan 2007

MARTINŮ: Peach Blossom; The Orphan and Other Songs

The artsong in the twentieth century benefits from the efforts of national composers, like Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), who stimulated the genre by incorporating regional folk elements into their music.

While Martinů had composed over a hundred songs around 1910, those remain unpublished and do not represent his efforts in this area of composition as the works he composed later, in the 1930s and early 1940s, when he composed many of the works recorded on this CD. In contrast to his earlier music, Martinů had already turned to folk music for his inspiration, and without entirely abandoning entirely some of the stylistic traits as French music, which had been a force in his creative life, he infused his efforts with ideas found in his native Bohemian folk tradition. Almost the domain of cognoscenti of solo vocal music, this recording brings Martinů’s efforts in this area to a wider audience in a single CD that offers a representative selection of his music in this style.

The various songs in this recording date from around 1930–1942, when Martinů indulged in song writing. While some of the songs used texts translated into Czech from other languages, most of the pieces are based on Czech poetry, either from collections of verse or found with folk songs. Some songs are from collections of two or three pieces, while others, like the 1942 collection Nový Špalíček (New Anthology), based on specifically Moravian texts, are more extensive. Two of the pieces derive from a larger work, Hry o Marii (1935), the so-called Miracles of Mary that is included in work-lists with Martinů’s sixteen operas.

As to the music itself, it is difficult not to find the works engaging musically. Sometimes the overt simplicity is captures the folk idiom well, while elsewhere the speech rhythms urge the listener to pay attention to the text and what is being said. The rhythms are, at times, reminiscent of those found in Janáček’s late vocal works. The interplay between vocal line and accompaniment is critical, and an excellent example of this may be found in Martinů’s setting of Guillaume Apolinaire’s Saltimbanques, a playful piece in which the music fits well into the title of the piece that involves tumblers — acrobats, as the musicologist Geoffrey Chew, the translator of the text in the accompanying booklet has it.

In fact, it is useful for those interested to listen to the music with the texts in hand, so as not to miss any of the nuances of the pieces that are found in the texts. While some recent Naxos recordings include just a URL to texts and translations at its website, this particular recording includes all of them in the booklet that accompanies the CD. To understand the composer’s intentions in these pieces, it is important to listen to the music with the texts in hand. Without suggesting anything obscure or otherwise pejorative about the music, the works require such close reading because they are hardly as familiar to modern audiences as the more standard Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and Strauss, and thus require more effort to listen to Martinů’s well-crafted settings as the music of those other composers, whose text are relatively more familiar. This is not to suggest anything arcane or remote about the music, which is in itself quite effective.

The performances of Olga Černá and Jitka Čechová demonstrate their familiarity with the music. As a native speaker, Černá brings nuances to the performances that others simply cannot convey, and her readings are engaging for the inflections she offers that go beyond the literal meaning of the texts. Likewise, the accompaniments benefit from the approach Čechová has taken in executing it well. While the music may be, at time, simple sound, its qualities stem from the clear articulations and chiseled rhythms that Čechová brings to all of the pieces. Her strengths are apparent throughout the recording, and are all the more appealing in the solo passages that allow her move out of the role of accompanist and take on the solo part. At the same time Černá’s fine voice deserves to be heard in other music, including works by Janáček, because of her sensitivity to the language, and element that is almost necessary for the effective performance of Smetana’s operas.

While Martinů’s reputation rests mainly on instrumental music, the vocal works reveal of different side of his art. Like the operas that are part of his compositional legacy, the songs deserve attention, and it is good to know that the International Bohuslav Martinů Society and the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation sponsored the performanced and supported the production of this CD that brings to light a fine selection of songs by this Czech composer. While this selection is just under and hour in duration, it serves well in bringing to light a further development of the artsong in the hands of one of the finest exponents of Czech music in the twentieth century.

James L. Zychowicz