This is a singularly exotic issue for Czechs and non-Czechs alike. Four cantatas are collected here, written by Martinů between 1956 and 1959 (the year he died), during the composer’s phase of renewed interest in Moravian folk poetry, and all based on verses by Miloslav Bureš set in the Bohemian-Moravian hills. Fortunately, Supraphon provides full translations (which makes one wonder whether a piece entitled ‘The Legend of the Smoke from Potato Tops’ would have had much success in the Anglophone world of 1956), and the composer’s sensitivity to the rhythms of his native language and inventiveness with regard to instrumental colour are in any case more than enough to retain the non-Czech-speaking listener’s interest. It should be noted that the editions used are the corrected versions issued by the Bohuslav Martinů Complete Edition.
The potato-top cantata (Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati) is scored for soprano, contralto and baritone soloists, mixed choir, recorder, clarinet, horn, accordion and piano, which must surely rank as one of the most exotic ensembles ever conceived, and Martin≤ being Martin≤ he knows exactly how to exploit such a bizarre group to the utmost. There is a curious and engaging mixture of the homespun and the exotic about it, and the story itself is certainly not lacking in drama. It is also beautifully performed – soprano Pavla Vykopalová is particularly impressive with her incisive tone, vibrato used with great discretion – and there is also a political dimension in that the composer, in protest against the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, refused to send it to Czechoslovakia in time for its first scheduled performance. The other cantatas have slightly less unusual scorings – Otvírání studánek (‘The Opening of the Springs’), in addition to narrator, three soloists and female chorus, requires only two violins, viola and piano, while Romance z pampelišek (‘Romance of the Dandelions’) requires soprano and tenor soloists, mixed choir and ‘drumming on chair’, and Mikeš z hor (‘Mikeš of the Mountains’) is scored for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed choir, two violins, viola and piano.
Narration in musical compositions is always a challenge, and in Otvírání studánek I do not really feel that Martinů rose to it. The dramatic thread conjured by the wonderfully colourful musical episodes is constantly slowed by the narrator, who is no Cocteau. Romance z pampelišek, on the other hand, is a delightful pastoral evocation of love, with some outstanding choral writing. Is it possible that this outstanding performance of such a rewarding work might inspire choirs in Western Europe to take it up (the chair drumming may even be an added incentive)? Mikeš z hor is another sophisticated riot of colour, utterly engaging in its directness, and the more moving when one remembers that it was written in the year of the composer’s death.
I cannot imagine these cantatas being better performed or recorded than here; Lukáš Vasilek is an outstanding conductor, and the Prague Philharmonic Choir respond to his every interpretative intuition. Very highly recommended.