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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Nipponari – Seven songs to Japanese lyrical poetry for female voice and small orchestra (The Blue Hour; Old Age; A Memory; Life in Dreams; Footsteps in the Snow; A Look Back; By the Sacred Lake) H68 (1912) [21:35]
Magic Nights (Kouzelné noci) – Three songs to Chinese texts for soprano and orchestra H119 (In a Foreign Land; Untouched by Spring; The Mysterious Flute) (words by Li Tai-Po, Chang Yo-Su, transl. Hans Bethge) (1918) [15:19]
Czech Rhapsody (Česká rapsodie)* – Cantata for baritone, mixed choir, organ and orchestra H118 (1918) [36:11]
Dagmar Pecková (soprano); Ľubica Rybárska (soprano); Ivan Kusnjer (baritone)
Kühn Mixed Choir/Pavel Kühn
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
Rhapsody released on CD for the first time
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 30-31 August 1985 (Rhapsody), 3-4 September 1988 (Nipponari, Nights). DDD
SUPRAPHON SU 3956-2 [73:23]
Experience Classicsonline


This is early Martinů. These three works, comprising two fragile song-cycles and a passionate patriotic cantata, were written between the ages of 22 and 34. The Martinů we know from the Parisian and American years peeps through only rarely but the music itself is very attractive even if not yet fully personal.

Nationalism has had a bad press … and no wonder but the fervour of Sibelius and Smetana and Vaughan Williams is acceptable. Martinů’s Czech Rhapsody H118 is a very different work from the same titled piece for violin and piano H307 written 27 years later and then dedicated to Kreisler. H118 is a sort of discursive extended Finlandia with play being made of the St Wenceslas Chorale – a melody also used to great effect by Josef Suk in his War Triptych. The Martinů piece sometimes shares that mood. The music radiates sincerity and utter dedication. The strings of the Prague Symphony sing out laden with an almost Russian passion. The musical style veers between Brahms, Suk and Strauss. Indeed the rhapsodic-episodic nature of the score recalls the larger-scale tone poems of Richard Strauss. There is a long orchestral prelude in which the harp detailing registers with great sensitivity. The harp is prominent later where it seems to serve as a recollection of antique times. The choir enters at 9:40 and the singing whether choral or solo by the admirable Kusnjer is saturated with zeal. It often presents as an unwavering wild-eyed patriotic liturgy. At 16:20 we suddenly get a brief presentiment of the mature Martinů style but it comes and goes very quickly. Kusnjer has a long solo exposure from 24:00 to 29:17 when the choir re-enter with full orchestra. They carry the spoils of victory with just a hint of barbarism. There is also a gritty violence in the organ solos – the same spirit to be found in the flaming fury of the organ solos in Janáček’s Glagolytic Mass. By the way this work is in a single 36 minute track which is a criticism. Although played continuously it would have been good to have had some other entry points.

By contrast Nipponari is sensuous, minimalistic in instrumentation and reminiscent of Ravel in Shéhérazade or the Chansons Madécasses. It’s for a chamber orchestra with soprano – a part luminously taken her by Dagmar Pecková. The orchestra is used like a palette drawing off many slender, distinct and poetic lines. Listen to how the harp is used as a heart-beat or pulse. You hear that pulse in Old Age providing a backdrop to the viola’s gentle long-breathing line. The instrumental weave is subtle and in A Memory recalls the Introduction and Allegro and Ma Mčre l’Oye. The vocal line is clearly affected by the work of Chausson and Duparc. Footsteps in the Snow strangely echoes RVW in I Got Me Flowers from the Mystical Songs. RVW was partial to Ravel as we know from his On Wenlock Edge. Other references would include the songs of Czeslaw Marek. In The Blue Hour which ends in a gentle doffing of the hat, there are moments of Straussian-Szymanowskian luxuriance. While Nipponari is pointillistic except for its last two songs, the more substantial Magic Nights makes more generous use of heavier orchestral textures. Ľubica Rybárska is a fine and romantic advocate for these honeyed songs.

It is delightful to welcome these recordings back from late LP format or early and long-deleted Denon-based CDs. Delightful, yes but also fascinating and that fascination is supported by good programme notes in idiomatic English.

Rob Barnett


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