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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Songs: Deux Chansons (1932) [7.19]; Trois Mélodies* (1930) [0.53]; Vocalise-Étude* (1930) [1.10]; Two Ballads to Folk Texts* (1932) [6.31]; Four Songs to Folk Texts (1940) [5.39]; Polka from Spalicek, for piano (1932) [2.13]; New Anthology (1942) [10.56]; Waltz from Spalicek, for piano (1932) [6.05]; Three Christmas Songs* (1929) [2.46]; Four Nursery Rhymes* (undated) [1.17]; Love Carol (1937) [0,53]; A Wish for a Mother* (undated) [1.16]; Songs from the Miracle of Our Lady (1934) [6.42]
Olga Cerná (mezzo)
Jitka Cechová (piano)
* world premiere recordings
rec. 11-12, 15-16 February 2003, Studio Minor, Trhovy Stépánov, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.557494 [53.40]

Martinů was born in the small town of Policka in eastern Bohemia in 1890. As a student his reputation for being dilatory in his studies gave no clue to his destiny as one of the twentieth century's most prolific composers. Having played in the violins of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the years around the end of the First World War, he developed an interest in French music which induced him to move to Paris, where he studied with Albert Roussel. This relationship proved fruitful, for from the mid-1920s Martinů produced a stream of compositions ranging through all the musical forms from opera to solo keyboard music, which incorporated many of the chief stylistic developments of the time, such as impressionism, jazz, neo-classicism, and (Czech) nationalism and folksong.

Although he regularly visited his homeland, Martinů lived in Paris until the Second World War, when he was forced to flee the Nazi threat and leave for the United States. He returned to Europe in the early fifties, living in Nice, Italy and Switzerland, but never in Czechoslovakia, for he vowed never to return until the totalitarian government had relinquished power. During the last years of his life, Martinů lived in the home of his friend the conductor Paul Sacher at Pratteln, near Basle. In August 1979, twenty years after his death, his remains were reburied in the churchyard at Policka.

Those who know Martinů’s music to any degree will understand that his talent was naturally suited to song writing. For his lyrical gift was strong, and the fund of Czech folk music remained an inspiration even though he lived outside his homeland for practically the whole of his creative life. Save for a couple of recently discovered miniatures, the songs collected here (the piano music too) dates from Martinů’s Parisian period between the wars. During this time he maintained close links with his homeland, with regular visits to Policka during the summer months. There may, therefore, be an element of nostalgia in his choices of text and imagery.

It is probably true that the nature of the Czech language is fundamental to the nature of these songs. One can only surmise how they would fare in translation, but clearly relatively few singers would be able to cope with performing them in Czech. Therefore it seems unlikely that they will ever become well known, even though leading artists like Magdalena Kozena have taken up the cause (for example, her recording on Deutsche Grammophon features various Czech composers, including Martinů 463472-2 review). Olga Cerná and her excellent pianist Jitka Cechová do justice to Martinů’s songs and can cope with the comparison with such an artist, who has deservedly gained an international reputation. Moreover this new Naxos collection is imaginatively put together and includes several first recordings.

Unless deliberately planned to create a recital experience, a recording of songs such as this is best sampled in part rather than in full. That is no criticism of either the artists or the composer, but rather an acknowledgement that Martinů did not intend that these often tiny pieces should be performed across a span of an hour, one after the other. Admittedly the programme here does admit two attractive piano pieces from the delightful ballet Spalicek, based on Czech (and international) fairy stories, but that is not a major issue.

While the Czech theme is central to Martinů’s approach, the French influence should not be denied. The programme opens with music whose French associations could hardly be more clear, as Martinů admits by using the words ‘chanson’ and ‘mélodie’. And most appealing these pieces are too. The Three Mélodies, albeit less than a minute together, receive their first recording.

It was undoubtedly a deep sense of nostalgia that led Martinů in 1942 to produce the New Anthology of songs using traditional Moravian texts. He had only recently arrived in the United States, having escaped the Nazi threat by the skin of his teeth. The results are delightful; so too the performances, which are fresh and beautifully paced. While only one of these songs – entitled The Mournful Lover – is at all extended, they do work supremely well as a cycle, so that the effect of the whole is decidedly more than the sum of the parts. In fact these songs urgently deserve a wide currency.

The Naxos recording is generally warm and sympathetic, with pleasing piano tone and an appropriate balancing with the voice. The booklet is thorough and well designed, and particular praise is due to Richard Whitehouse for compiling such well informed and well written notes, on a subject that must have been challenging to research.

Terry Barfoot

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Dominy Clements



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