01 September 2017

BEST CHORAL RECORDING OF 2017: Bohuslav Martinů — CANTATAS (Prague Philharmonic Choir; Supraphon SU 4198-2)

BEST CHORAL RECORDING OF 2017: Bohuslav Martinů - CANTATAS (Supraphon SU 4198-2)BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ (1890 – 1959): Cantatas – Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati (H 360), Otvírání studánek (H 354), Romance z pampelišek (H 364), and Mikeš z hor (H 375)Prague Philharmonic Choir; Pavla Vykopalová (soprano), Ludmila Kromková (contralto), Martin Slavík (tenor), Jiří Brückler (baritone), Petr Svoboda (baritone); Jaromír Meduna (narrator); Daniel Havel (recorder), Jan Pařík (clarinet), Jan Vobořil (French horn), Josef Hřebík (accordian), Ivo Kahánek (piano), Patrik Lavrinčík (drumming on chair), Jakub Fišer (1st violin), Štěpan Ježek (2nd violin), Jiří Pinkas (viola); Lukáš Vasilek, conductor [Recorded in the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 22 – 23, 26, 29 October, 21 December 2015, 10 January and 28 April 2016; Supraphon SU 4198-2; 1 CD, 68:13; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Though he was indisputably one of the greatest Czech artists of his own or any other generation, Bohuslav Martinů remains an infrequent guest in the repertoires of American choirs, orchestras, and other musical institutions. Born in the Bohemian town of Polička in 1890, Martinů was an accomplished violinist and a composer who, like Mozart, excelled in many musical genres. A contemporary during his seven decades of life of Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, the Second Viennese School, and Igor Stravinsky, he underwent a creative evolution that encompassed styles ranging from late Romanticism to Modernism, explored in a vast array of works that display ingenuity, insightfulness, and intelligence. By the time of his death in 1959, Martinů’s place among Czech voices in Classical Music rivaled the long-established significance of Dvořák and Janáček, but America has been less welcoming to him than to his illustrious countrymen. With this recording of the four remarkable Cantatas composed by Martinů during the last five years of his life, Pražský filharmonický sbor—the Prague Philharmonic Choir—and Supraphon, the label responsible for many of the finest recordings of Czech repertoire, give today’s listeners an extraordinary gift: here, in sixty-eight minutes of music, the souls of a man and his art are shown to be as strikingly original and thought-provoking in 2017 as they were six decades ago.

Many periods during the Twentieth Century were difficult times in which to be a Czech artist with a strong social conscience, and Martinů felt the stings of his fatherland’s struggles as sharply as Chopin felt Poland’s injuries a century earlier. Profoundly troubled by the political tide that swept Czechoslovakia into the Eastern Bloc in the years that followed World War Two, the composer ultimately found in the poetry of Miloslav Bureš (1930 – 1978), also a native of Polička, a renewed faith in the resilience and indomitable spirit of the Czech people. Though Martinů died nearly a decade before the rise of Slovak reformer Alexander Dubček and the Prague Spring of 1968, the four cantatas with texts by Bureš that he composed between 1955 and 1959 exhibit the national pride and quest for intellectual independence that characterized the later liberalization movement.

Led by Lukáš Vasilek, the performances of the cantatas on this disc are sung by the Pražský filharmonický sbor with fervor that illuminates Martinů’s music, bringing to each phrase an unwavering commitment to musical accuracy and textual clarity. Like much Czech music, Martinů’s cantatas are shaped by the cadences of language, and the choristers’ superb diction allows even attentive listeners with no comprehension of Czech to follow the narrative progress of each cantata. That Vasilek understands and appreciates these pieces is evident in every moment of these performances, his confident handling of music that is most difficult when it seems most simple disclosing an absolute comprehension of the composer’s word settings. Receiving from Supraphon the gift of sound that reproduces the singular acoustics of Prague’s Rudolfinum with tremendous fidelity, chorus and conductor seize this opportunity to share these treasures of their shared cultural heritage. Their efforts produce performances that, once heard, become adopted components of the listener’s own cultural identity.

Completed in 1956, Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati (The legend of smoke from potato tops, H 360) is scored for soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, recorder, clarinet, French horn, accordion, and piano. Any listener who questions Martinů’s adroitness as an orchestrator will find details in this music that wholly dispel skepticism. Respectively played by Daniel Havel, Jan Pařík, and Jan Vobořil, the composer’s writing for recorder, clarinet, and French horn is magical, and these musicians’ sounds combine with those of Josef Hřebík’s accordion and Ivo Kahánek’s piano to create sonorities that sometimes mimic the quaint timbre of the organ in a village church. In the cantata’s opening passage, the choristers sing ‘Ta dobrá pramenů a svělta’ with sonorous authority and are answered by soprano Pavla Vykopalová with ably-voiced statements of ‘Ta dobrá panímáma’ and ‘V tom kraji kameni a říček.’ The choir’s delivery of ‘Potkala se se svým v poli’ is mesmerizingly beautiful, and first contralto Ludmila Kromková’s firm incantation of ‘Můj synku milý’ and subsequently baritone Petr Svoboda’s burnished account of ‘Matko moje milá’ complement the sublime poise of the choral singing. The immediacy with which ‘Když spěchali pláteníci na trh toho rána’ is declaimed by the chorus contrasts tellingly with Vykopalová’s ethereal voicing of ‘Zatím ona v plášti zrajícího žita.’ She and Kromková briefly visit the musical world of Norma and Adalgisa with their sensitively-phrased management of ‘Vesničanku, která sotva umí otčenáš a zdrávas.’ Their unaffectedly earthy singing of ‘Nepoznali ji’ prompting Svoboda’s powerful but poetic ‘Tito chlapci jako srnci ostražití, bdělí,’ the choristers conclude Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati with the unmistakable sincerity of their traversal of ‘Boží máti, sestřenice jeřábu jak plamen čistá.’ This is a true resolution rather than only an end: in this performance, the cantata’s drama, both austere and timeless, transports the listener to an emotional destination, different for each individual but invariably compelling.

Otvírání studánek (The opening of the springs, H 354) is the earliest of the cantatas, dating from 1955, and it is among Martinů’s most engaging works. Written for narrator, soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, female chorus, two violins, viola, and piano, the music explores the timbres of the instruments individually and in ensemble, creating unique sounds evocative of Bohemian folk music. This cantata’s story is propelled by the spoken narration, and Jaromír Meduna’s recitations emerge from the music with the melodious flow of an oboe. Members of the acclaimed Bennewitz Quartet, violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek and violist Jiří Pinkas play with verve and unpretentious virtuosity that echo the eloquence of Meduna’s speaking, and Kahánek’s pianism is again a source of momentum. The gravitas with which the choristers sing ‘I studánky chtějí býti čisté’ establishes the ethos of the performance, and the resonance of their vocalism is continued in Meduna’s delivery of ‘Tak je to u nás v horách všude.’ Bridged by the recitation of ‘Do půlkruhu obstoupili pramen,’ the choir’s singing of ‘Vedl je přes trávu, před kvítí’ and ‘Králko, milá králko’ exudes mystical connection with the text. Vykopalová’s sparkling voice is deployed with delicacy in ‘Jsem rubínka opuštěná,’ and first the choristers with ‘V tý májový době přicházíme k tobě’ and then Meduna with ‘Tam, kde bylo bahna nejvíce’ perpetuate the nuanced honesty of the soprano’s expressivity. The sequence of the choir’s ‘Když studánku a stružku vyčistili,’ contralto Kromková’s ‘Studánko hlubáňko, kdes tak dlouho byla,’ Vykopalová’s ‘Vítám tě, sasanko, na břehu,’ and Meduna’s ‘Královnička poklekla na šátek rozprostřený’ winds through Bureš’s words and Martinů’s settings of them like an expedition into a much-loved but ever-changing landscape. Prefacing the narrator’s articulation of ‘Jako by studánku za ruce vzali,’ the choristers’ communication—and it is an aural incarnation of the words rather than mere singing—of ‘Zlý moci zahánímn’ conveys the subtle intensity of the poet’s imagery. Baritone Jiří Brückler intones ‘Potkal jsem jeseň’ with rugged charm. There is in the choir’s performance of ‘Studánko hlubáňko’ a moving, humbling universality: these voices are all voices, their singing both that of men and women and of all mankind.

Composed in 1957, Romance z pampelišek (Romance of the dandelions, H 364) is the most inventive of these cantatas, its unusual writing for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed a cappella chorus, and drumming on chair engendering an atmosphere unlike anything else in Martinů’s body of work. Wonderfully realized in this performance by Patrik Lavrinčík, the chair’s percussion recalls the rhythmic use of cajón integrated into modern flamenco by Paco de Lucía, Lavrinčik’s careful execution of Martinů’s instructions giving the cantata an erratic but exciting pulse. Coursing through the music like blood circulated by that pulse, the choir sings ‘Kdybys byl aspoň holubem’ at the cantata’s start with flawless ensemble and timing. Vykopalová enunciates the soprano soloist’s ‘Ach, co jsem se, milý, co jsem se nahledala’ with technical assurance, little troubled here or elsewhere by the range of the music. Following the choir’s tautly-balanced ‘Sedmý rok tvé vojny jak zlé mračno plyne’ with an equally keenly-judged ‘Do prstýnku pro tebe i s kapičkou rosy,’ Vykopalová’s vocalism is fleetingly reminiscent of that of Jana Valášková. Tenor Martin Slavík’s timbre is ideal for ‘Nad ní v tichu krouží holub bílý,’ which he sings with apt emotional directness. ‘Ach, to není holub, to se junák vrací’ and ‘Sedm vrchů přešel a sedm řek k tomu’ reveal the choir’s impeccable training and the skill with which these master musicians translate that training into singing of incredible precision and histrionic power. Joining the chorus in ‘Já mu vzkážu tolik štěstí’ and then soaring unaided in ‘Vzkážu mu i tolik zdraví,’ Vykopalová again proves to be an uncommonly gifted interpreter of Martinů’s challenging music. The humanity that emanated from the chorus’s singing of the final bars of Otvírání studánek also permeates their performance of ‘Ó! Sedm let, to byla dlouhá doba.’ Their total faith in Martinů’s genius makes the inner logic of the music’s construction and the depth of the composer’s affection for the words palpable.

An offspring of the final year of Martinů’s life, Mikeš z hor (Mikeš of the mountains, H 375), requiring an ensemble of soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, two violins, viola, and piano, simultaneously seems autobiographical, accusatory, and aphoristic. Each of these cantatas is highly personal, but Martinů’s own voice resounds more discernibly in Mikeš z hor than in almost any of his other vocal compositions. Whether this was knowingly and intentionally a valedictory piece can only be conjectured, but it is a score in which the composer spoke directly to the world about the past, present, and future of the land of his birth. As in Otvírání studánek, Fišer, Ježek, Pinkas, and Kahánek collaborate to coax from their instruments torrents of tone that unite the polish of the concert hall with the vivacity of the village naměstí. Slavík’s attractive tenor is used with great finesse in ‘Jak povědět, co vítr psal na květy pláněk?’ Vykopalová captures the frisson of the choir’s ‘Šlehá prutem, hej!’ with her intelligent reading of ‘A ony všechny na svých hřbetech.’ Her singing of ‘A kopce, bochánky zelené,’ a majestic valley between the imposing peaks of the choristers’ incantations of ‘A vždycky dvěma o zem opřenz’ and ‘Kolem je všechno zelené a pěkné jako v písni,’ manifests the brilliance of Martinů’s treatments of Bureš’s poetic conceits. Punctuated by the chorus’s fervent ‘Ale co ty jinovatkou posypané chlumy,’ Slavík’s accounts of ‘Země, jak sám sebe v tobě přeberu’ and ‘Jak vyrvat od kořene mráz i fujavici z mraků’ breathe life into the words, heightening the cantata’s cumulative dramatic impact. The choir’s declamations of ‘Pohromy a války!’ and ‘Rozhrnout mraky bouří vzedmuté a vidět do jara a zeleně’ and Vykopalová’s impassioned ‘Všechno je tu vytesáno do povětří’ culminate in their stirring combined outpourings of ‘Ty, jejich bože, dej těm kozlíkům nést’ and ‘A za nimi jako zlatý oblak včely.’ Slavík voices ‘Pro ten příběh šel jsem do pohádky’ with unexaggerated poignancy, pronouncing the words with linguistic and expressive crispness. The resignation beneath the surface of the choir’s radiant singing of ‘Dodnes s Mikešovým stádem dobře je mi’ is extracted from both music and words. Through this performance, Martinů and Bureš communicate with the listener in language that needs no translation.

One of the most dangerous and often ill-considered actions in Classical Music is proclaiming a performance or recording definitive. Mercedes Capsir’s and Lina Pagliughi’s Lucias were considered definitive by some listeners until Maria Callas’s was heard, and fisticuffs like those to which Eighteenth-Century divas Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni reputedly resorted in battling for dominance are hardly an unimaginable outcome of a discussion of whether Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Birgit Nilsson, or some other contender was the greatest Brünnhilde or Isolde. Virtually all recordings have advocates who assert their supremacy, and this is one of foremost joys of music: what one listener hears as mediocrity, another hears as magnificence. In truth, Pagliughi’s, Capsir’s, and Callas’s Lucias are all valuable, and the listener who dismisses Flagstad’s Isolde in deference to Mödl’s portrayal does Wagner a grave disservice. Nevertheless, there are recordings that define or redefine listeners’ perceptions of individual works, composers, repertory, or performers. Pražský filharmonický sbor’s recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s four late cantatas invites the listener into the intricacies of this oracular music, encouraging surrender to the hypnotic interplay between music and text rather than doggedly advocating specific interpretations. In the context of this release, then, perhaps definitive is not the proper adjective. Unlike so many new recordings, fine though some of them are, this disc was necessary.