RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
Le Jour de Bonté (The Day of Charity) (Den Dobrocinnosti) H. 194 - opera in two acts and an appendix (1931) [73:16]
Lucas – Tomáš Bijok (tenor)
Nicolas – Petr Matuszek (baritone)
Blonde – Irena Troupová (soprano)
La Déspérée – Lucie Fišer Silkenová (soprano)
Peter Podlauf, Michal Macuha, Libuše Moravcová Myrátská, Gabriela Petirová, Jarmila Kosinová, Petra Havránková, Josef Zedník, Josef Škarka, Jaroslav Kovacs, Lívia Obrucník Vénosová, Zbynek Brabec, Martin Buchta
Prague Chamber Choir/Lubomir Matl
Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra/Milan Kanák
rec. Czech Radio Pilzen Studio, November-December 2009
world premiere recording - courtesy Cesky Rozhlas.
ARCO DIVA UP 6121-2 131 [73:16]
The Day of Charity was an opera that Martinu was working on in Paris in 1931 around the time of his wedding. Its story concerns two French peasants who hear that a day of charity has been declared in Paris so they go to the capital to find needy people for whom to perform good works. However, nothing goes quite to plan: among their many adventures a beggar rejects their offering, a traffic conductor tells them off for getting in the way and a suicidal girl berates them for preventing her longed-for death. After an altercation with some women they are arrested and wake up the next morning back in their village. Perhaps the whole thing was just a dream?
Martinu was writing the opera with the hope of getting it staged by a French theatre, but any prospect of this seems to have evaporated and, in April 1931, he broke off writing half-way through the first act and never took it up again. This world premiere recording gives us the score as the composer left it. It’s infuriatingly incomplete and breaks off just after the half-way mark of the story, but conductor Václav Nosek, whose pet project the reconstruction was, must have felt that a solid half was better than nothing at all.
The score was unpublished in Martinu’s day and it was Nosek who undertook the research and puzzle-solving required to piece it together into a performing version. He also gave it its first staging in Budejovice in March 2003 but died before the making of this recording. The present conductor, Milan Kanák, dedicates the recording to him and cites him frequently in his informative notes to this issue.
So what are we left with? The first thing to note is that Martinu’s scoring is a delight. He writes for a chamber orchestra with a piano and the pared down textures really gleam. The undulating line that accompanies the opening pastoral scene is enchanting and the composer evokes the harsh Paris streetscape and the bustling railway station with the same assuredness. The idyllic nature of village life is beautifully evoked in the opening scenes but the music takes on a sharper edge when petty quarrels and squabbles intrude. It also pokes gentle fun at authority figures such as the Mayor or Gendarme but can produce uncannily powerful melodrama for the scene featuring the woman who had been saved from drowning (called La Déspérée). It’s charming and interesting and leaves you hungry for more. Infuriatingly it breaks off in the middle of the Concierge scene, which seemed to be going in a very interesting direction, but you’ll have to decide for yourself whether half an opera is worth your investment.
The performances are dedicated and strong, not least from the outstanding Prague Chamber Choir whose delicate choral textures are as illuminating as the orchestra’s , sounding ethereal, even angelic in the village scenes. The two leads, Lucas and Nicolas, throw themselves into the project and the myriad minor roles are all taken well, with particularly strong contributions from the soprano roles of Blonde and La Déspérée. Kanák’s direction is assured and confident and he keeps the action moving at a witty pace, making it all the more frustrating when things come to such an abrupt halt.
This disc is the culmination of a worthy piece of musical archaeology and the performance is very good, though half an opera is a difficult sell and I can’t help but think that it’s primarily for Martinu aficionados and completists. You’ll have to judge for yourself. Full texts and translations are provided, as well as a scholarly essay on the recording’s genesis, which might help you make up your mind.
A delight. Charming and interesting and leaves you hungry for more.
And a further review … from Rob Barnett
This ripely attractive music completely defies the neo-classical expectations usually aroused in me by products of Martinu's Parisian years. This music shares its harvest-time effervescence and joy with the vintage of his later years.
The singing has a delicately yielding passion reminiscent of Canteloube in the pastoral bubbling of tr. 2. This develops stormily from the male choir. Ever-rising ecstatic waves are topped off by jubilant trumpets and vituperative piano ripples (7.45). Train noises and echo effects are mixed in with the spoken word. Later on we get charabanc and auto sounds in the scene where we meet a gendarme directing traffic complete with white baton and whistle. The melancholy modal viola sings out before sharp stabbing whoops by the men and then the women are punctuated with piano ‘gunshots’. Intricate volleys and cannonades from the choir rise to a delicious discord (6.37, tr. 4). The Act II Introduction sports a tapping snare-drum and a poignant and sometimes vinegary trumpet solo. The music is pointillistic and open-textured. Tr. 6 miraculously and inventively begins by evoking the ripple of rainfall. In tr. 7 we hear the piano in wild jazz-pianola flight set amid a bubbling joy familiar from the decade-later Fourth Symphony. In tr. 8 the musical language again prefigures the joyously dense harmonic updrafts of the 1940s. This is succeeded by a zany Poulencian music-hall jollity (tr. 9). The final delightful ‘La La La’ chorus is reminiscent of Les Swingles.
The set is documented in regal fashion as its aural and artistic excellence deserves. The essays and other background are in a booklet housed in the usual place in the jewel-case. The four language parallel-format libretto sits together with the box in a card slip-case. The original text is in French and is sung by a Czech cast.
The occasional slapstick, broad humour and touchingly poignant episodes coupled with pastoral succulence reminded me of a contemporary English work - RVW's Sir John in Love. The two might have been brothers under the skin. This work if only completed could easily have ended up as Martinu’s most famous and successful opera had he completed it.
This is one of the highlights and discoveries of the 2009 Martinu celebrations.
One of the highlights and discoveries of the Martinu celebrations.