Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Field Mass for male chorus, with baritone solo and orchestra (1939) [24.57]
Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani (1938) [21.40]
Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1955) [17.37]
Václav Zítek (bar) (Mass)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus/Lubomír Mátl (Mass)
Czech PO/Charles Mackerras (Mass)
Josef Růžička (piano) (Concerto)
Jan Bouše (timp) (Concerto)
Prague Radio SO/Charles Mackerras (Concerto, Frescoes)
rec Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 20-21 Jan 1984 (Field Mass); 15-16 Feb 1982 (Frescoes, Concerto) DDD
SUPRAPHON SU 3276-2 931 [64.31]
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Charles Mackerras has long been a devoted friend of Czech music. I remember that Pye LP of Mackerras conducting Janáček's Sinfonietta with a selection of the operatic preludes. The Pye cover had a photograph the sixteen trumpeters deployed across the full breadth of the orchestra. This was at a time when Janáček had hardly any profile in the UK and where, in the fame stakes, Martinů probably ranked slightly higher. The balance has shifted since then with Taras, Sinfonietta, the Glagolytic Mass and above all the operas having secured a far warmer place in the sun for Janáček than that accorded to Martinů.

On this disc Martinů's most recorded work rubs shoulders with two slightly lesser known pieces. The Double Concerto (to be distinguished from his other double concerto for violin, piano and orchestra - curiously neglected on CD) has an oppressive claustrophobic atmosphere as well as a ferocious release of adrenalin. This is a work that is predictive of the same explosion of dynamic interest, cross-rhythms and melodic profusion that we associate with his American years (early 1940s onwards). I am not sure I can easily find a parallel for this supercharged pressure. The closest I can point to is the Bax Second Symphony (from the early 1920s) where the composer conjures a bass-heavy murmur that has you staring down into a colossal tempestuously wheeling whirlpool.

Sejna’s Martinů Double Concerto (on a still available Supraphon coupled with an abysmal sounding Martinů Third Symphony) has always been a connoisseurs’ choice however he is not without competition. The Supraphon sound is coarse textured but very strong and close - somehow fitting for a work that sounds a little like the Tallis Fantasia on speed and laced with cordite, grief and tragedy. The piano acts as a centre-stage orator intensifying and explaining. The Sejna sound amplifies the sense of cataclysm and stalking hysteria. Mackerras on a modern sounding Conifer CDCF210 is a strong contender though ‘his’ piano is made to sound like a rather pebbly pianola much improved on the disc under current consideration. The Conifer Brno State PO is lean with whip-sharp reflexes and just the right acidic aggression. Amongst the other competition the most colossal is the Bělohlávek on Chandos CHAN8950. Macura, on a difficult to locate Panton 81 1204-20111, is big on impact without Bělohlávek’s blessing of Chandos luxury sound. My how he taps the anguish and hysteria in this score! The DePreist BIS version, audio-technically speaking, is ennervatingly distanced and I could not recommend it. Conlon’s take on the work (on an Ultima double) is well worth exploring. His controlled interleaved waves of string-sound in the Largo hold you in the cup of his hand though I suppose some may find it mannered. Conlon’s French orchestra is not quite the luxury vehicle enjoyed by Bělohlávek or by Mackerras in this latest Supraphon. None of these versions is poor as an interpretation. The DePreist can be eliminated only because the recording lacks close-up grip though, ironically, it is probably the most representative of a concert experience in a big hall with the listener sitting in ‘the Gods’. The Conlon stays with me because of his memorable way with the Largo. Go for the Chandos for an excellent interpretation in gold bullion sound. The Macura (stereo) and the Sejna (historic mono) are older and are well worth considering. Some of you will have learnt your first Martinů through the Sejna LP and need have no reservations about returning to it now. Mackerras gives the most intense performance - little to choose between the two on character. Truth to tell you cannot really go wrong with any of these though I do urge caution with the BIS.

Double Concerto I II III

Mackerras (Supraphon) 6.22 8.29 6.41

Mackerras (Conifer) 6.25 8.21 6.59

Sejna (Supraphon) 6.25 8.40 7.01

DePreist (BIS) 6.39 8.09 6.28

Bělohlávek (Chandos) 6.42 8.14 6.45

Macura (Panton) 6.54 8.24 6.54

The Field Mass is, broadly speaking, contemporaneous with the Double Concerto. The work was written in Paris with the war two months old, written in the bow-wave of the Blitzkrieg that saw old Europe's walls pulverised. Truth to tell it is not melodically the most striking of Martinů's inspirations. A Prom performance a couple of years back left me completely unmoved. However it has a striking sound-world all its own as men's voices are ranged with and against wind, percussion, piano and harmonium. Perhaps this is a credible battlefield instrumentation. There is a touch of nostalgia for pastoral and civic homelands but the determination and dedication to conflict are what rises most readily from this performance. To the best of my knowledge there are currently no alternative recordings.

Finally we come to a work whose vivid painterly qualities match adroitly the subject matter: the Frescos of Piero della Francesca. Most of us long-time Martinů hunters will have first heard the piece as the coupling with Turnovsky's version of the Fourth Symphony. This was on a 1960s Supraphon LP. It is a late work from 1954 and its drench of colour in motion has its counterpart in the artwork of that Orphic Robin Williams film of a couple of years back There are no hard edges so it cannot entirely be a mosaic kaleidoscope. Rather it is a melting river of colours in constant flux. The three movements represent an active meditation on the wall paintings of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo in Italy. It is extremely well done by both Supraphon and Mackerras.

The notes are good and are well translated and designed. Full texts and translations are given. All around a quality product. A more impressively recorded, imagined and executed introduction would be difficult conceive.

Rob Barnett


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