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Recordings

Bohuslav Martinů <em>What Men Live By</em> (H336,1952-3)
11 Dec 2018

Bohuslav Martinů – What Men Live By

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No.1 (What Men Live By)

Jiří Bělohlávek,the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Supraphon 4233-2 [CD]

$19.99  Click to buy

What Men Live By is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Where Love, God Is (1885) though the composer borrowed the title from a different Tolstoy story. At its first full performance, by students at Hunter College in 1955, critics heard it was "a profoundly Christian opera" but did not understand its context. That was not the composer's intention. He wrote to a friend in Brno comparing it to his earlier works based on medieval miracle plays, such as The Miracle of Mary, emphasising that "it must not be performed 'pathetically' but joyously. That is why it is called an opera-pastoral. The text tempts one to adopt a serious and grave approach yet that was not what I planned. For me, it is a blithe work, and the listener must not perceive it as a religious moral (guidance) but has to feel joy".

It is also significant that The Miracle of Mary, written in Paris in 1936, reflected interest at that time among many composers, such as Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (please read more HERE), which Martinů would have known of, and Walter Braunfels's Die Verkündigung (Please read more HERE) which he would not have known, or even Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (1935-6). At a time when Europe was facing the rise of extreme nationalism that used medievalism for legitimacy, Martinů and his peers’ adaptation of medieval form served a radically different purpose. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume its lack of success was caused by its being deemed old-fashioned, when it in fact represents a significant thread in European music, which critics at the time might have missed. In any case, by 1955, it could not have been lost on audiences that the composer himself was in exile and could not easily return to his homeland. What Men Live By is simple, but not naive, a very sophisticated work despite its cheerful lightness: it’s a chamber oratorio sparsely but deftly scored, which benefits from Bělohlávek's sprightly touch.

Distinctively Czech themes run throughout the piece, notably in the introduction, which begins with a pipe organ, its melody taken up by pipes and then drums in jolly mock-medieval procession. Martinů's What Men Live By tells the story of Martin Avdejic, a lonely old cobbler who lives in a basement, where his window on the world allows him to see only the feet of those who pass by. Ivan Kusjner sings Martin, his deep baritone suggests a down-to-earth working man. The chorus (Martinů Voices) surround him with ethereal harmonies. Martin has almost given up on life. A sorrowful solo violin plays, as Martin's lines are solemnly intoned, the choir repeating his words, like a response in church, the pattern reflected in the balance between the two Narrators, Josef Špaček (spoken) and Jaroslav Březina (tenor). A vision appears, embodied in the voice of the alto Ester Pavlů, who tells Martin that she will visit him the next day. A very Bohemian sunrise, with horns, pipes and jaunty strings. Zig-zag piano lines suggest the street outside Martin's workshop, full of busy people rushing past. Though he's waiting for his special visitor, he welcomes in old Stepanovich (the bass Jan Martiník) and gives him shelter from the snow. Martin spots a woman (Lucie Silkenova) shivering in the cold, holding a baby. Martin gives her a warm coat and cradles the child. "Surely it was He, himself, who sent me to you!", she sings. The chorus returns, singing as joyfully as pealing bells. An old woman ( Ester Pavlů) is in the street, selling apples. A boy (Lukáš Mráček) playing harmonica (heard in the orchestration) steals one and runs but Martin stops work and chases him. The old woman wants to call the police. Martin asks the old woman to forgive the child, and she does. She once had seven children but now she's all alone. The boy then helps the old woman carry the sack and they walk off happily, to the sound of the harmonica. A rustic chorale prepares us for the finale. Martin goes to bed, disappointed but in the darkness he spots the people he'd met during the day. The alto and soprano join to sing the words of the Visitor Martin had been expecting. " In as much as ye have done to one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me,” the last two words haloed by the chorus. The radiance in the last moments may suggest that Martin is borne up into Heaven.

Although What Men Live By might seem simple, Martinů emphasised the pitfalls of performing it without understanding its purpose. "The technical hurdles include the fact that the singer should not sing as is customary today (but) he should 'preach' and edify, striving to make the text moere expressive. By and large these days, instead of a melody one hears something like uauauauaua, imbued with 'affection'" (possibly translation error for 'affectation'). "That would not be good", he continued. "It should be sung like a folk song devoid of pathos. I think that the text itself is beautiful and so it does not need to be in any way enhanced". Fortunately Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic understand the Bohemian folk sources so thoroughly that they capture the free-spirited vigour in the piece, as far as one can get from stuffy "churchiness". The text is in English, written by Martinů himself, so Bělohlávek's soloists, not being native English speakers, have strong accents. But this is is in fact an advantage, because their accents emphasise the fundamentally Czech nature of this music and also the non-realism which Martinů was trying to achieve. They are all top-rank experienced singers, not students, and understand the idiom properly. As I was listening, I thought of the stylization of medieval mystery plays, where directness of message mattered most, without any pretence of verismo and over-colouring. This also connects to the clarity of the orchestration, simple figures and single instruments used for maximum effect.

On this disc What Men Live By is paired with Martinů's Symphony no 1 which is a good choice, since the symphony begins with a striking ascendant theme which complements the finale of What Men Live By. As Aleš Březina writes in his notes, "it should be pointed out that the avant garde composers in interwar Paris, where Martinů lived and worked from 1923 to 1941, set up their own aesthetic criteria in opposition to Late Romantic music.....while in the USA, symphonic music enjoyed great popularity". Martinů, who had no income other than royalties from earlier work, was glad to accept a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. The composer had some difficulty in proceeding, but, once he was satisfied with that introduction, the rest of the symphony flowed. Bělohlávek conducted all the Martinů symphonies in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which are available on CD. He had planned to record them again with the Czech Philharmonic, but his illness intervened. On the basis of this performance, that series which never came to pass would have been outstanding. Though here it is an add-on to the much rarer What Men Live By, it is a recording to be cherished.

Anne Ozorio

      

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