Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959) Ariane, lyric opera in one act, H 370 (1958) [43:29]
Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, H 271 (1938) [22:29]
Ariane - Simona Šaturnová
Théseus - Zoltán Nagy
The Minotaur – Baurzhan Anderzhanov
Burun, Guard – Abdellah Lasri
Old Man – Tijl Faveyts
Youths of Athens – Aalto-Theater Essen Choir soloists
Ivo Kahánek (piano)
Essener Philharmoniker/Tomáš Netopil
rec. August 2014 (Double Concerto), October 2015 (Ariane) SUPRAPHON SU4205-2 [65:58]
Martinů wrote the one-act opera Ariane in the year before his death. Given its late date, the work seems something of a throwback to earlier neoclassical conventions. Martinů used a story from ancient Greece, which he set to music that is both austere and consciously imitating styles of the Seventeenth Century. It resembles Stravinsky's 1927 Oedipus Rex. But Martinů’s slighter work is a chamber opera, without the massive choruses of Oedipus.
Although Ariane is diminutive in scale, its musical qualities are substantial. Martinů’s terse retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is melodic, fast-paced, and demands considerable virtuosity from its singers. Martinů told his wife that he was thinking of Maria Callas as he wrote Ariane’s part. That story may place an unfair burden on Simona Šaturnová in this new Supraphon recording, but she is quite impressive. Her final lament, which takes 9 minutes of this brief opera, recalls Purcell’s Dido, but with greater fire. Zoltán Nagy is a fine Theseus, responding to the libretto’s demands for both courage and confusion.
This is a surrealist version of the Greek myth. Theseus and the monster he kills look the same, and are perhaps halves of a divided personality. Martinů’s other surrealist opera, the 1937 Julietta, was also to a text by his friend Georges Neveaux, and both works share a mood of stressful ambiguity. Martinů composed this work in a month, taking a break from the much larger project of The Greek Passion, his final opera. This new recording replaces Václav Neumann’s version in the Supraphon catalogue. That 1986 recording features tauter conducting, but a less splendid Ariane.
The other work on this disc is Martinů’s 1938 Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani. The wonderful Double Concerto features antiphony and bleakness in equal measure, capturing the tension of Europe on the verge of war. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor, patron, and pharmaceutical baron who had sponsored Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in 1936. On first hearing, listeners might well imagine this to be a sequel to Bartók’s work, with its searing strings and insistent rhythms. Perhaps Martinů was inspired by Bartók, or perhaps Sacher was explicit in telling Martinů what he wanted. In any event it is a glorious piece, here enhanced by the fine playing of pianist Ivo Kahánek.
Supraphon seems to be turning frequently to Tomáš Netopil as it makes new recordings of the great Czech orchestral repertory, including works by Suk, Dvořák, and Janáček. Compared to Karel Ancerl, Václav Neumann, Jiří Bělohlávek and the honorary Czech Charles Mackerras, Netopil often seems flaccid and relaxed, when his great predecessors conveyed tense urgency. Perhaps this is some sort of generational reaction to an earlier modernist way of interpreting these works. Perhaps I unreasonably expect all Czech conductors to honor Ancerl’s aesthetics. Netopil’s performances here are certainly good, but lack the edginess that Mackerras brought to the Double Concerto, for instance.
But I do not want to complain too much about a very enjoyable pair of performances of outstanding Martinů pieces, recorded in fine sound. If you do not know these works, this disc offers a welcome way of making their acquaintance.