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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Bouquet of Flowers / Kytice H260 (1937) [46:53]
Jan NOVÁK (1921-1984)
Philharmonic Dances / Choreć Philharmonicć (1956) [18:54]
Kateřina Kněžíková (soprano), Michaela Kapustová (alto), Jaroslav Březina (tenor), Adam Plachetka (bass), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tomáš Netopil (conductor)
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, live, 17-19 December 2016 (Martinů – live), 2017 (Novák)
Texts and translations included.
SUPRAPHON SU4220-2 [65:36]

For those who love Czech music, this is a highly valuable disc. For those, like me, passionate about Martinů, it is indispensable.

Martinů is one of those twentieth-century composers, like Prokofiev of Malcolm Arnold, who are sometimes taken less than seriously because they composed so prolifically, and with such apparent ease. Facility seems, to some at least, at odds with the knotty, hard-won efforts of pure genius (especially if Beethoven, or, in painting, Van Gogh, is taken as an archetype). Yet we make no such charges against eighteenth-century composers. Genius has many forms, and we should perhaps look to the prolific type as a source of unending treasures.

Bouquet of Flowers is a very attractive piece, with depths that become more apparent with each hearing. It was composed to a commission from Czech Radio and premiered in April 1938. Martinů had previously composed two operas for radio, and the scoring for Bouquet suggests his attentiveness to the needs of that medium – at a time before stereophonic, FM or digital signals. Clarity matters in these circumstances, all the more so for a large work with soloists, two choirs (adult and children) and orchestra. Martinů would, in his later wanderings, never hear the work live, though exchanges of letters with Karel Ančerl suggest the composer heard the world premiere recording from 1955.

Ančerl’s recording is still available on Supraphon (SU36722) in the Karel Ančerl Gold Edition. As a mono recording, over 60 years old, it naturally is sonically less satisfying than the new recording from Netopil, and it has the particular intensity which Ančerl would bring to this repertoire. Timings for each movement are remarkably similar between the two recordings, and each has a gifted team of soloists (perhaps Ančerl’s are a fraction stronger, but there is nothing to take away from the accomplished singers here).

The music is in Martinů’s most accessible idiom, based on Moravian folk songs, with a prominent part for two orchestral pianos and harmonium. Martinů had a gift – sometimes overlooked – for word-setting, and in the five songs which make up the cycle (plus an overture, and two interludes) he is able to demonstrate enormous emotional variety. The purely orchestral third movement, ‘Idyll’, has gentleness and great lyricism, yet also, in its accompaniment, rhythmic solidity. It is a charming and immediately enjoyable piece. The succeeding ‘Kravarky’ is a song about a little girl cowherd preparing to meet her young man. It has an interesting sobriety despite the apparent lightness of the theme. The last three songs have darker themes – the imprisoned young man (though he is helped to escape by his fair maid), ‘Koleda’ (‘A Carol’) about the consequences of Original Sin, and a final meditation on death before a concluding orchestral section. This is an important work, and a very satisfying one.

The three dances by Jan Novák are a valuable filler. By the way, he should not be confused with the better known Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949). Jan Novák was a friend of Martinů and, in later years, an émigré, following the Soviet invasion of 1968. He had also been forced to work in Germany during the Second World War. Martinů’s influence on his idiom is evident, yet he has a distinctive voice. The three Philharmonic Dances are extended showpieces, readily accessible, and together they form an attractive suite. This is their first recording.

Performances throughout are excellent. Recordings are clear, and Netopil is emerging as a formidable musician. I have been impressed by previous recordings, and the Czech musical tradition seems very safe under his direction.

Michael Wilkinson



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