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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
What Men Live By, opera-pastoral in one act, H336 (1952) [38:57]
Symphony No. 1, H289 (1942) [36:53]
Ivan Kusnjer (baritone), Petr Svoboda (bass), Jan Martiník (bass), Lucie Silkenová (soprano), Ester Pavlů (alto), Jaroslav Březina (tenor), Josef Špaček (tenor, narrator), Lukáš Mareček (spoken role)
Martinů Voices, choirmaster Lukáš Vasilek
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. 2014/2016, Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague
Texts and translations included
SUPRAPHON SU4233-2 [75:57]

What Men Live By is based on the Tolstoy short story Where Love is, God is (1885), though Martinů chose to use the name of another story by the writer for the title of his pastoral opera. Buoyed by the eventual success of his 1935 one-act radio opera Comedy on the Bridge, which was staged in New York in 1951, he rapidly set What Men Live By in English for a small instrumental and vocal ensemble: eminently practical, as ever.

Martinů was insistent that this was an ‘opera-pastoral’. Where contemporary American critics saw an explicit Christian opera, he himself related it to his earlier miracle play works, such as The Miracle of Our Lady. The plot concerns the recognition by the old cobbler, Martin Avdeitch, that his ‘vision had come true, that my Saviour had in very truth visited me that day, and that I had received Him.’ These are almost the work’s final lines and are repeated, more or less, by the chorus so it seems fair to say that it can be considered both a Christian and a miracle-pastoral and that there is no contradiction between the two.

It’s a work that was often stripped back to piano accompaniment but this December 2014 recording, the work’s professional premiere on disc, offers the specified orchestration. The strings, for instance, line up 6-6-4-3-2 with stripped back winds, piano and percussion. The 39-minute work will most certainly make an immediate appeal to Martinů admirers, not least by virtue of its extreme rarity on stage, as well as on disc. And they will find a focused and sometimes moving realisation of the score presided over by one the composer’s greatest champions of the last few decades, Jiří Bělohlávek. There are details that crystallise procedures familiar from his orchestral music, fascinating accompanied recitatives, echo effects that will remind the hearer of Julietta, as will the somewhat dreamlike elements embedded in the music, as well as music that ranges from the rustic-bucolic to the solemn, and brief hints, perhaps, of The Greek Passion to come. Martinů would not be Martinů were there not moments of rampantly surging lyricism and there is at least one such here to end scene three.

There is much to enjoy and much that will enrich one’s experience of Martinů’s desire to explore compact stage music in the early 1950s. That said, there are a few production concerns. The vocal cast is wholly Czech-speaking so you must expect some very individual accents. The role of spoken narrator, however – he doesn’t sing, as the role is split and speech-singing duties taken by Josef Špaček – is Lukáš Mareček, and his American accent is pretty convincing throughout. Topsy-turvy accents apart, not all the singing is on the same level – some of the women are strident - though the chorus, Martinů Voices, is excellent. Then there’s the printed libretto, which is, frankly, confusing. Let’s forget the typos and Supraphon’s mishits at English – which are numerous - and focus on what is written and what is sung because they are not always the same. This is especially true of what I take to be stage directions in the libretto. This happens a number of times. What is printed as a stage direction in the text is spoken on the disc: maybe it helped the audience in the Rudolfinum, if it understood what was being said (I doubt it would have done, to be honest), but it doesn’t help the listener as he can read the direction. The most obvious example is in scene four which sounds to me simply wrong – the spoken narrator speaks a stage line ending ‘and resumes his work’ whereupon the singing narrator begins a speech-sing with the lines ‘Martin resumed his work, yet…’ This is pure redundancy and can’t possibly be right. I don’t have a score so can’t be wholly sure whether the directions are in any way meant to be spoken or not but on the face of it they are not and certainly for a recording are wholly unnecessary.

It won’t, fortunately, limit your interest but it may well bring you up short.

The performance of the First Symphony was given in January 2016 once again at the Rudolfinum. It was intended to inaugurate a number of other Martinů symphonic recordings, but illness soon put paid to that project and it remains the last Martinů recording Bělohlávek made. He was a remarkably consistent conductor and those who have access to the BBC Symphony cycle will note that not only do these performances of the First Symphony, made around six years apart, tally almost to the second but they remain topographically and expressively as similar as makes no odds. The difference resides in the recording quality. Listening to the wretched Barbican sonics and turning to the Rudolfinum is like staring into the abyss and suddenly seeing a Turner sunset. The lighter, brighter Czech textures allow the music to sing and surge and dance. With the muddy-booted BBC you squelch along. They may well have been dancing in the Barbican, but you certainly can’t hear it.

This Czech performance is the one to go for but unfortunately the BBC recordings are part of a cycle that the conductor never lived to re-record in far better sound.

Jonathan Woolf

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