MARTINŮ The Epic of Gilgamesh
Martinů initially described The Epic of Gilgamesh as ‘a kind of profane secular cantata’ but later asserted that it was ‘neither an oratorio nor a cantata … simply an epic’. Here we have it restored to the English in which it was written, and that raises the question: how do the inflections of English – rather than Czech – alter the gait of Martinů’s music? The answer is, not as much as you might expect. Nor do passages spoken by a narrator stifle the flow, a problem Ivan Moody observed in the cantata The Opening of the Wells which, written in 1955, is contemporaneous with this piece.
Perhaps that’s because we’re dealing with something altogether broader in Gilgamesh. As the composer neared his end and clocked authoritarianism on the rise in both his adopted USA and native Czechoslovakia, he sought to affirm his ideas of love and friendship, apparently concerned by the soullessness of technology (how prescient). The source for his new work, first performed in Basel in 1958 (the year before his death), was a Babylonian text from over 2000 years before Christ in an idiosyncratic translation by Reginald Campbell Thompson. The overriding theme in the excerpt Martinů chose appears to be that of wisdom in the face of mortality.
Musically, the score is recognisably Martinů’s, minus that overt joie de vivre but plus a sprinkling of the apocalyptic, hints of early polyphony and some borrowings from the stile recitativo that the composer took from studying Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo. At the business end of the piece, the chorus’s insistence that ‘death is the day not yet revealed’ sees Martinů stacking up cadences in his own inimitable way, railing against death emotionally and technically. The score’s relentless invention, much as in Wagner’s Ring, comes largely from the resourcefulness and changeability of the orchestral conversation. That throws up plenteous colours.
But Martinů also wanted to conjure a mighty sound, and this live recording from the Rudolfinum suggests Manfred Honeck did just that in January 2017. We get all the score’s churn and urgency, and tender luminosity too. The choir are well disciplined but not that bright and sometimes squish their English vowels, but the distinguished orchestra take to the work naturally. Of the soloists, Derek Welton makes most impact, perhaps because of the music he is given. Andrew Staples sings with affecting drama and Lucy Crowe is particularly delicious when draping drooping sighs over the wordless chorus. Simon Callow is a galvanising narrator, though it’s a shame his fluffed opening stanza couldn’t have been patched. Not that it really matters. We have an absorbing piece here in a generally fine performance caught with atmosphere. More than a document for Martinů bods.