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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Songs on One Page, H294 (1943) [8:03]
Songs on Two Pages, H302 (1944) [8:09]
New Slovak Songs, H126 (1920) [55:07]
New Chap-Book, H288 (1942) [10:51]
Martina Janková (soprano)
Tomáš Král (baritone)
Ivo Kahánek (piano)
rec. 2017, Martinů Hall, Academy of Music, Prague
Texts and translations included
SUPRAPHON SU4235-2 [82:34]

Martinů’s solo songs have never really garnered the same level of interest, in terms of recordings, as his other larger-scaled vocal works. Their concision is one element in this as is perhaps the fact that unlike Janáček, folksong wasn’t Martinů’s natural inheritance – he didn’t go folksong collecting in the way that Janáček or Novák did, relying instead on printed collections.

Nevertheless, his travels in Slovakia in the summer of 1920 led to his encountering an extensive number of songs, which he harmonised and published in the same year. He never claimed these were original compositions and performed a selection of them under the title ‘Slavic Songs’ in September 1920. The full collection of songs forms the bulk of Supraphon’s disc, occupying 55 out of a very generous 82 minutes.

The same three performers recorded Janáček’s Moravian songs (review) to which this latest disc is a kind of companion. It too interspersed soprano and baritone voices throughout the songs and this is something that sets it apart from such competitor versions as exist, which almost invariably feature a single voice. So, on Naxos mezzo Jana Hrochová Wallingerová bears the solo responsibilities supported by Martinů specialist Giorgio Koukl in a multi-volume series of the complete songs. The difference between the voice types - Hrochová Wallingerová’s mezzo and Martina Janková’s soprano – is notable, the former the more obviously expressive and heavier, whilst Janková’s focused innocent purity adds a slightly different, less interventionist gloss. And more often than not the Supraphon team take slightly longer over the 30 Slovak songs than do the Naxos pairing. The difference is hardly excessive but points to a more reflective, slightly less vitalised approach. That said, the stormier elements in these settings, such as numbers six and fifteen for instance, go very well, baritone Tomáš Král sings with a boyish warmth, and master pianist Ivo Kahánek – who has never made a bad disc – proves exemplary in the cimbalom evocations.

The Songs on One Page and Songs on Two Pages were composed during his American years, in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Again, the songs are parcelled out to both singers, or one sings one verse alternating with the other. The effect keeps ennui at bay, even when – just sometimes – the singers run the risk of smoothing over the music’s greater depths; I think the performance of the Dream of the Virgin Mary in the first setting, for example, doesn’t escape that danger. The highlight of the Two Page settings is the last song, where the galloping Lads of Zvolen are given a hefty kick-start by Kahánek.

The New Chap-Book dates from 1942 and in it Martinů set Moravian folk poetry. It was dedicated to Jan Masaryk, the Czech politician who was also a good pianist, and he performed the songs with another exiled Czech, the famous Met soprano Jarmila Novotná. Both Masaryk and Novotná recorded the traditional Lidice songs for Victor in the same year and it’s curious now to speculate what would have happened had they added Martinů’s cycle to the catalogue at the same time. There’s a far more definably melancholic vein to the settings, certainly when set against the more black and white emotions of the 1920 Slovak songs.

There are full texts and translations in the booklet which has evocative photographs and one of Aleš Březina’s customarily superior booklet notes.

The 1940s songs are a special index of the composer’s thoughts and ideals at a time of great fear, politically and personally. The Slovak songs are the anchor of his folk settings, though light and early. Supraphon’s focus on these folk settings sets it apart from the multi-volume Naxos discs but in a fruitful and complementary way.

Jonathan Woolf

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