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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)

Deux Chansons (1932) [7:19]
Trois Mélodies (1930) [0:53]*
Vocalise-Etude (1930) [1:10]
Dvĕ Balady (Two Ballads to Folk Texts) (1932) [6:31]*
Čtyři písně (Fours songs to folk texts) (1940) [5:39]
Polka for piano - from the ballet Špalíček (1932) [2:13]
Nový Špalíček (1942) [10:56]
Waltz for piano - from the ballet Špalíček (1932) [6:05]
Three Christmas Songs (1929) [2:46]*
Four Children's Songs and Nursery Rhymes [1:17]*
Koleda Milostná (Love carol on a folk text) (1937) [0:53]
Přání mamince (A wish for a Mother) [7:19]*
Songs from the Hry o Marii (The Miracles of Mary) (1934) [6:42]
Olga Černá (mezzo)
Jitka Čechová (piano)

rec. 11-12, 15-16 Jan 2003, Studio Minor, Trhový Štĕpánov, Czech Republic. DDD
sponsored by the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation and supported by the International Bohuslav Martinů Society
* world premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.557494 [53:40]

We do not perhaps link Martinů with artsong. This disc let’s us into the ‘secret’ that he wrote songs throughout his compositional life. It’s a lovely disc but one which would perhaps have benefited from an even greater variety of songs and piano solos.

The slow dense almost suffocating oppression of summer heat is heavy in Martinů's 1930s setting of Chan Yo Sun's Peach Blossom. This is the first of his Two Songs and that pervasive languor is instantly asserted by the piano line and faithfully continued by Černa's close-hugging singing. Automne Malade (Apollinaire) is the second of the two songs. Its mood is very much of a piece with Peach Blossom. In neither case is there a whiff of willow pattern Chinoiserie. If anything these songs link with those of Duparc and Chausson.

From Three Songs we get Saltimbanques (Acrobats) again to a poem by Apollinaire. This represents a break from the honey-dripping slowness of the first two songs. Similarly fleet is the Vocalise-Etude whose transitory fairy-flight dances carefree. This is a nice addition to the vocalises by Medtner, Rachmaninov and Villa-Lobos.

Then come the Two Folk Ballads. The dark Erben-style The Minstrels were wandering includes sections of quasi-sprechgesang. A little more subtle is the similarly grim fairytale The Orphan with its chimingly ‘clean’ piano part.

The four Erben folk-songs recall Canteloube in Ponies on the Fallow Field without the airless Auvergne heat. By contrast the quick-skip syncopation of The Lost Slipper is an accelerating delight. Religious Song is sombre. The final Invitation has the sense of holy pilgrimage - rather like Warlock's Frostbound Wood.

After ten songs come various works two piano solos from the orchestral ballet Špalíček - superbly recorded by Mackerras on Supraphon. In addition there are and eight songs gathered under the title Novy Špalíček. These come over as guileless, rural echoes of folk originals - a touch of Canteloube again and of Skalkottas (the Greek Dances). Only in the addressing gesture of Prayer and in the fleeting accompaniment of The High Tower (reference to Martinů's childhood in the church-tower?) did I detect a distinctive flavour of the Martinů of the 1940s.

The Three Christmas Songs are represented by The Chicken and The Little Cat. These again sound folksy, disarming and simple. In a similar jejune innocent spirit comes Counting Song, The Wild Dove, The Little Swallow and Children's Riddle in which cheeky, cheery, breathy writing is complemented by Černa's voice subtly tuned to catch the awkwardness and candour of early childhood. .

Prani Mamince (A Wish for a Mother) is an attractive song not least because the contours of the lyrical theme contain the germs of his melodic writing in symphonies 2 and 4 lying more than five years in the future at that time.

Lastly come two songs from the big choral orchestral cycle - The Miracles of Mary (recorded by Supraphon). Christ's Nativity is described as a pastorale and its atmosphere of simple devotion seems completely apposite. The last song is Sister Pascolina on a subject by Julius Zeyer who wrote the story of Raduz and Mahulena on which Josef Suk made a successful sequence of incidental music.

The notes by Richard Whitehouse are very supportive and add greatly to the considerable and undemanding pleasures of this disc. The picture is completed by the fact that the sung texts are printed in full with side-by-side translations. For some reason, probably contractual, the words for Le Petit Chat could not be included. But they can be found, we are told, at

Quite apart from the Martinů legions this disc should find a ready market with admirers of French song and with those who take a special interest in how concert music of the last century took the imprint of folk influences.

Rob Barnett



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