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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Mount of Three Lights (1954) [17:26]
Hymn to St James (1954) [12:19]
Petr ŘEZNÍČEK (b.1938)
Dies Irae (1967) [15:42]
Petr FIALA (b.1943)
Regina coeli laetare (2016) [21:52]
Markéta Szendiuchová - soprano
Jana Melišková - soprano
Marie Vrbková - alto
Tomáš Badura - baritone
Vítězslav Šlahař - bass
Petr Nouzovský - cello
Jan Ocetek - gong
Petr Kolář - varhany
Martin Jakubíček - organ
Alfréd Strejček - reciter
Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno/Petr Fiala
rec. 2017, Besední dům, (Martinů, Řezníček), Husově sboru (Fiala), Brno, Czech Republic
ARCO DIVA UP0188-2 [67:41]

A little under half of this CD is taken up with two late religious pieces by the prolific Bohuslav Martinů. There is still too much suggestion that Martinů was an ‘uneven’ composer, as if exploration of his huge corpus of rarely played works would only unearth dross. The fact is that he wrote very little that is less than very fine and much that is in the top drawer of European 20th century music. These two extreme rarities, the Mount of Three Lights and the Hymn to St James are superb and fine examples of his art respectively. They are both scored for similar forces, chorus, solo voices and organ. The organ is required to do much more than accompany and indeed in the Mount of Three Lights it has virtuoso passages. The remaining two works by Petr Řezníček and Petr Fiala are, I believe, new to the catalogue. They, too, are basically for chorus and organ with the Fiala requiring a solo voice and a very prominent gong. Both are works of considerable impact, making this disc much more important than Arco Diva’s rather parochial presentation would imply. I should explain that whilst there are notes in English the texts are not translated and still more disconcerting, nor are the titles and performer information on the front pages and CD case. Only contact with Czech-speaking friends allowed my heading to make sense.

Martinů's Cantata Mount of Three Lights (‘Mount of Three Lights’ is one of the names given to the Mount of Olives) was composed in November 1954 for a Dutch male chorus. It uses text from In the Steps of the Master, a guide to the Holy Land published in 1934 by travel writer Henry Morton. Martinů puts a small number of passages from the book in the mouth of a speaker. These, along with passages from the Gospel of St Matthew and words of Martinů’s own invention provide the text for a powerful and profound meditation on the moment of Christ’s betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. The notes in the Supraphon recording (nla) suggest he wrote the piece for performance in English, but here it is, of course, sung in Czech. I should note that the Supraphon performance has a tenor and a bass sing the solo parts whereas this Arco Diva issue uses a single baritone for both parts. That is probably no bad thing because the bass role is less than well sung on the older recording. Baritone Tomáš Badura is very good here. Martinů leads one through the events very swiftly until the moment when Jesus begs God to let the cup pass from him before resigning himself with the words “as thou wilt”. The chorus and organ dramatically emphasize this symbolic moment in a passage of increasing fervour and majesty. Finally in a highly imaginative section, Martinů presents an old chorale to conclude the cantata with a clear nod to J.S. Bach. The men of the Czech Philharmonic Choir give this real weight.

The Hymn to St James was written a few months earlier than the cantata and initially the text is concerned with the same scene in Gethsemane, thought very differently treated. Thereafter it focuses on praise of Saint James himself. Again the organ has a prominent part, as does a solo cello which accompanies both the bass solos and also the final chorus. This essentially simpler but moving piece was written at the request of Father Jaroslav Daněk the priest in charge of Martinů’s own church in Polička. The composer had long promised to write something for the church that had been his childhood home. He had grown up in the spire itself where his father had lived as warden. Though this hymn does not reach quite the heights of the cantata it is far from trivial. Performed like this it is a real winner.

Řezníček’s setting of the Dies Irae again gives plenty for the organist to do. His piece uses the usual modern techniques of aleatory, twelve-tone scale, tone clusters and so on. It is not difficult listening and at just over 15 minutes it does not outstay its welcome. The chorus clearly have no difficulty meeting the demands of the score and it proves worth one’s attention.

Conductor Petr Fiala completes the disc with a substantial composition of his own, Regina coeli laetare, (Queen of Heaven, rejoice) written in 2016 . Here the forces are joined by a solo cellist whose role is very important from the start. The organ is finally absent. Fiala’s setting of the ancient Marian hymn is in nine distinct parts. Since there are so few words, there is a lot of repetition over the work’s twenty minutes. The cellist has as prominent a role as he would in a concerto, and one as difficult to play. Petr Nouzovský is a superb player, well able to encompass the wide-ranging demands of the score. The first movement is his alone and he hardly ever stops playing through the remaining eight. The very end of the work has his wonderfully pure tone fading to nothing. The chorus sings continuously from the second movement onwards with a solo soprano making a strong impact at some points. The gong, an unexpected instrument in a religious work, is silent for the first few minutes but eventually its solemn, punctuating strokes get more insistent, rising to a dramatic level in the penultimate section, where all the forces are at full volume. Fiala has written a very impressive piece here. The style, whilst modern, does not use the avant-garde techniques evident in Řezníček's Dies Irae, and is, whilst dramatic overall, an essentially contemplative composition which leaves a deep impression. I listened to it three times whilst preparing this review.

The engineering of this whole CD is very good indeed. It is rare to get such realism from an organ and chorus without the result becoming an audio fog. Here the pedal lines are very clear, and very deep when required, and the chorus is positively crisp such that even a non-Czech speaking listener can follow the words (as long as he has the Supraphon translations to hand for the Martinů!). Whoever placed the microphones did well.

Dave Billinge



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