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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Madrigals, H380 (1959) [10:08]
Primrose, H348 (1954) [6:29]
Czech Madrigals, H278 (1939) [17:34]
Three Sacred Songs, H339 (1951) [9:34]
Four Songs about the Virgin Mary, H235 (1934) [10:17]
Five Czech Madrigals, H321 (1948) [5:16]
Martinů Voices/Lukáš Vasilek
rec. 2016/17, Martinů Hall of the Music and Dance Faculty of Performing Arts, Prague
Texts and translations included
SUPRAPHON SU4237-2 [59:37]

Martinů’s Madrigals and sacred songs span the years 1934 to 1959. Famously inspired by the visit to Prague in 1922 of the English Singers, Thomas Morley remained one of the Czech composer’s most tenacious musical loves and in fusing the traditions of the English Madrigalists with those embodied in Moravian and Slovak music he created a contemporary idiom that embraced the past whilst admitting current strains. The results are frequently captivating and when he was most inspired by texts and circumstance the music is full of joyful compression.

Four Songs about the Virgin Mary, H235 is the earliest set, predominantly meditative as might perhaps be expected, and was written concurrently with The Miracles of Virgin Mary, H236. This Marian immersion seemed to generate in him both operatic and songful precision and there is strong thematic overlap between the opera and the four choruses. It wasn’t published until as late as 1993 but Martinů Voices, a superb chorus directed by the inspirational but meticulous Lukáš Vasilek, reveals its many felicities and beauties.

In 1939 he turned to the Czech Madrigals H278 at almost the same time that he was working on the stark, mobile Field Mass. This set wasn’t performed until 1965, six years after the composer’s death and it was his decision to withdraw it, though he didn’t destroy it. It’s clearly autobiographical and suffused with feelings engendered by his relationship with Vítězslava Kaprálová and it’s noticeable that the setting is largely bipartite; the first colloquial, jolly and quick-paced with woodland verdency, the second more veiled and melancholy. In the circumstances his decision to suppress the work is a reasonable one given the tragic trajectory of his student’s life and death.

He returned to the genre in 1948 with Five Czech Madrigals and three years later still with Three Sacred Songs. The 1948 cycle sounds liberated, with light, brief settings full of verve and transparency. The 1951 cycle is cast in the spirit of the pre-war Marian settings, but he includes, for the first time, an instrumental contribution in the shape of his old instrument, the violin. The three settings are subtle and the integration of the solo violin a complete success; it lends an intimacy that would not be forthcoming from the inclusion of greater weight. In Primroses (1954) he reprised the idea including violin - and piano, this time - in support of a female chorus. Love, sorrow and some earthy Moravian folk elements suffuse the texts and the music responds with rapid conjunctions of feeling and texture. Appropriately it was premiered in Brno, not Prague. The Madrigals, H380 date from Martinů’s final year and form a musical chain stretching back well over three decades to his first hearing of the English Singers. The texts may have come from Karel Erben but Martinů seems to have been much taken by folk verses and they certainly inspired him to a carefree envoi to the genre. The rituals and trials of courtship are followed by a deepening into the contemplation of the Last Judgment. Textural beauty and a reserved poignancy of utterance reflect no dilution or diminution of his skill, or taste.

This splendid set is performed with consistent stylistic identification and address. The chorus’ clarity does not compromise its warmth and the tempi are spirited and ensure full passion. With an excellent recording and a full multi-language booklet, and full texts, this is a splendid achievement.

Jonathan Woolf



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