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The Secret Mass
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Mass for Two Four-Part Choirs (1922-26) [27:19]
Songs of Ariel (1950) [11:44]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Ctyri pisne o Marii (Four Songs of the Virgin Mary) (1934) [12:13]
Romance z pampelišek (Romance of the Dandelions) (1957) [12:42]
Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Marcus Creed
rec. DR Studie 2, Copenhagen, 2017
Texts and English translations included
OUR RECORDINGS SACD 6.220671 [64:13]

Every sensible person knows that league tables – for hospitals, schools etc. – are absurd things that help nobody. This certainly applies to music and musicians. But here goes. I think Frank Martin’s Double-Choir Mass deserves a place right at the pinnacle of the a cappella choral music league table.

The title of this disc is The Secret Mass, an appropriate one given that Martin said of the work that it was a matter between himself and God, which in turn probably explains why he withheld the work from performance and publication for four decades. Martin’s father was a Calvinist pastor, and the composer’s religious faith and the nature of his upbringing colours his music. There is something of the ascetic about much of it, but it would be a mistake to think of the composer, or his Mass, as cold. On the contrary, the extreme fervour of his religious belief is present in every note of the work, but it is kept under tight control, to the extent that many passages threaten to break the bonds of what is possible to express in music.

The Mass is composed for two four-part choirs, with multiple divisions within each choir. The score is liberally peppered with tempo and expression marks, but there is not a single metronome value given, leaving tempi very much to the performers. One of the many strengths of this magnificent performance is that Marcus Creed’s tempo choices are judicious – though one means by this, inevitably, that they are what this particular listener wants to hear. Another strength, however, is that he is scrupulous about following the composer’s indications. So, when Martin marks in the score that a given passage should go “a little faster”’ or “with more insistence” Creed takes note and respects the marking. Only in one place, the opening of the Sanctus, do I find his tempo too slow for Martin’s “With movement but very calm”, but there’s no denying that the chosen tempo allows this magnificent choir to build up to a gloriously sonorous and passionate climax. At a few other points the conductor inserts tempo changes that the composer does not ask for. The ‘Christe eleison’ goes faster than the ‘Kyrie’, for example, and the music surges forward at the words ‘Confiteor unum baptisma’ (Credo) following a particularly wise tempo choice for the preceding passage. The only instance of this that bothered me was the sudden slowing down a minute or so before the end of the work, in the sublime ‘Agnus Dei’, composed four years later than the rest of the work. How pleasing, though, to hear the second choir breathing with the first, giving shape and musical sense to the monophonic chant with which it supports the first choir’s glorious melodic lines.

The Mass is very demanding of its performers, and the five Songs of Ariel even more so. The idiom is more advanced and the choir is, again, frequently divided. The texts, all from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, frequently demand pictorial effects and Martin does not shirk them. Dogs bark and bells ring with remarkable gusto in ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, and as for ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’, you’ll be wanting to take out the fly swat. All these effects are dispatched with remarkable brilliance and precision by the singers. The strangeness of Shakespeare’s play is well retained by Martin’s music. The real meat of the piece is the dramatic fourth song, a setting of Ariel’s long speech from Act 3 in which he reprimands the three noblemen who have betrayed Prospero and warns them of their future fate. The alto solo part is superbly taken by Hanna-Maria Strand.

Heard immediately after the Martin, the greater simplicity of Martinů’s Four Songs of the Virgin Mary is evident. It might even seem dryer, with fewer divisions within the choir. These are, however, lovely pieces that will surely bring pleasure to lovers of choral music, just as they do to me. The four songs are settings of Czech folk texts, and the composer’s aim was clearly simplicity of utterance. The music is solidly tonal with a firm hold on dissonance and little counterpoint. The words are clearly audible, therefore, and, though I am not a Polish speaker, the choir seems to have mastered that difficult language very well. You can follow the original text in the booklet, but not, sadly, at the same time as reading the English translation as they are not printed side by side. So it’s a good idea to read the texts first, particularly of the third song where the new-born Christ, responding to a comment from his mother who is presumably hungry following labour, offers to catch fish in the river! A comic text, then, simple and unsophisticated, and it’s a measure of the composer’s skill that by the music he finds to accompany the text, simple and unsophisticated in its turn, he achieves something strangely moving.

Romance from the Dandelions is one of four choral works, usually referred to as cantatas, that the homesick Martinů, exiled in the United States, composed in the 1950s. A young girl waits seven long years for her beloved to come home from the war. She is represented in this unaccompanied work by a solo soprano, beautifully taken here by Klaudia Kidon. A brief passage of march rhythm is tapped out on a drum, but the work is otherwise unaccompanied. The composer is skilful at alternating solo passages and those of the choir, and the work, though melancholy throughout, is varied in texture and often very beautiful. All four cantatas appear on a Supraphon disc (SU4198-2) where the superb Prague Philharmonic Chamber Choir is conducted by Lukaś Vasilek and the march rhythms are tapped out on a chair! Martinů enthusiasts will not let this disc pass them by. The Danish choir’s singing is more sensuous, arguably less authentic. There is less feeling of dramatic movement than in the Czech performance. But this is only evident in straight comparative listening. The Danish performance is very moving in its own right and it completes a highly satisfying programme.

William Hedley
Previous review: Leslie Wright (Recording of the Month)



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