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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, Denmark, 2017
Texts and English translations included
OUR RECORDINGS SACD 6.220671 [64:13]

What a clever idea to combine a cappella works of Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinů on a single disc! Although one composer was Swiss and the other Czech, they are exact contemporaries and both composed idiomatically for unaccompanied choir. Marcus Creed has done much in recent years to bring all kinds of choral music to the listening public. I have greatly admired his “country” series, including America, Russia, and Finland, and a Hindemith CD, all with the SWR Vokalensemble, as well as a Messiaen programme with the Danish choir who perform here. With the choir’s exquisite singing, this new disc can now join those for the pleasure it provides.

Martin’s early Mass for Double Choir has an interesting history, hence the title of this recording. Martin began composing the work in 1922, but withheld it from the public for 40 years. A combination of self-criticism and his strict Calvinism, where he felt his relationship with the Almighty was a private affair, kept him from allowing such a personal piece to be performed in public. Finally, a German choral conductor acquaintance of Martin’s convinced him to allow a performance to take place in 1963. The mass, considered one of Martin’s finest compositions, has received many performances since, though the work is hardly characteristic of the mature Martin. Although the mass clearly belongs to the twentieth century, the influence of Gregorian chant and Bach is everywhere present. The melismatic, chant-like opening of the Kyrie eleison, indeed, recalls music of an earlier age before the work builds polyphonically with both austere and more comforting harmony. The mass contains such contrasts throughout and the music is always closely tied to the text. Originally, Martin concluded the work in 1922 with the Benedictus, where the sopranos sing their highest note at fortissimo. Four years later he added the Agnus Dei, which Jens Cornelius aptly describes in the disc’s notes: “This is movingly beautiful music where Choir 2 is the solid foundation, while Choir 1 sings melodic lines that, as in the introduction of the mass, remind one of Gregorian chants.” Marcus Creed’s Danish National Vocal Ensemble sing this music with a straight tone, perfectly pitched and wonderfully blended. I have heard some other fine performances of Martin’s Mass, but none better than this.

While the Mass for Double Choir is the most substantial piece and the highlight of the programme, the other works are all worthy in their own right. The disc is well balanced between the sacred and the secular. Following Martin’s mass are Martinů’s Four Songs of the Virgin Mary, simpler and folk-like, the first of ten collections of choral songs by the composer. The titles do not belie their contents: The Annunciation, A Dream, the rather humourous Our Lady’s Breakfast, and The Virgin Mary’s Picture. The choir master the Czech tongue, a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers, and perform these songs with excellent pronunciation and dedication. These attractive songs reminded me, both harmonically and rhythmically, of Janáček’s unaccompanied choral pieces.

The choir switch to English for their next set, Martin’s five Songs of Ariel, the composer’s only other a cappella work. This later composition, with the texts taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, resonates like the more familiar and mature Martin with his distinctive harmony which owes something to Schoenberg, but remains basically tonal. They are quite delightful and require some virtuosity and vocal power. The choir obviously relish them and perform them with superb feeling and diction. The songs are Come unto these yellow sands, Full fathom five (with a baritone solo), Before you can say “come and go,” You are three men of sin (with an alto solo), and Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
 
The programme concludes with one of Martinů’s last works, The Romance of the Dandelions. This cantata-like piece has a major role for the solo soprano, unlike the more minor solos in Martin’s Songs of Ariel, and tells the story of a Czech girl who waits for her soldier sweetheart to return from war. It is very moving, and the soprano soloist, Klaudia Kidon, could easily pass for a native Czech with her strong and clear high voice. The choir contributes wordless interludes and sound effects, and there is a part for “finger-drumming.” On this recording a real drum is played to imitate the military rhythms, symbolizing the young soldier. It is certainly effective, but I think the finger-drumming would have been more authentic, and not as loud as the military drum used here. The title of the piece in Czech, Romance z pampelišek, literally means “romance from the dandelions” and that’s how it is translated in the disc’s booklet and sometimes elsewhere—for example, on the front of the Bärenreiter edition. However, that translation seems odd to me, so I have used the more readily understood “romance of the dandelions.”

OUR Recordings contribute an attractive bi-fold album and booklet with plenty of photos and well-written notes on the composers, the works, the choir, and Marcus Creed, as well as a listing of the choir members. There is one minor goof, which should have been corrected, in the track list on the back of the booklet and the album: the timings for the last three Songs of Ariel are in the wrong order. Also the texts and English translations are on separate pages, which makes it nearly impossible to follow along, whereas the more usual side-by-side arrangement would have remedied this. It is a small matter, for this is one of the most enjoyable discs I have reviewed in some time. With exemplary performances and recorded sound, the SACD should be in the collection of anyone who cares about twentieth-century choral music.

Leslie Wright

 

 




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