Martinu The Miracle of Our Lady

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Martinu The Miracle of Our Lady

  • (The) Miracles of Mary

Martinu's enchanting tetralogy of miracle plays (or rather a diptych, each part with its own extensive prologue; and incidentally ''The Plays of Mary'' or even ''The Games of Mary'' would be a better translation) is very near the centre of his output, and its appearance on CD is a matter for rejoicing. It owes its appeal partly to its rootedness in Martinu's nostalgia for his homeland, his childhood and an ancient way of life from which he felt himself uprooted, partly to its status as a 'research laboratory' into those areas where music theatre could be enriched by contact with ritual, popular drama, games and folk-song. Each of the constituent parts proposes a different, 'non-operatic' solution to the problem of setting a dramatic text. Thus ''The Wise and Foolish Virgins'' is a solemn, almost static tableau. ''Mariken of Nijmegen'' incorporates dance and mime (the title-role is shared between singer and dancer) and a crucial 'play within a play', complete with its own orchestra. ''The Nativity'' leaps joyously back and forth in time, as folk ballads often do, from the Nativity to the Annunciation, from the baptism of Christ to the shepherds in the fields. ''Sister Paskalina'', lastly, includes extensive dance scenes, others in which the distinction between narrative and dialogue is blurred, but also the nearest in any of these four dramas to a true aria.
In other words the work is centred on those areas which are the very source of that luminous quality, at times rather close to Copland's wide-open harmonies and arching melodies, that any admirer of Martinu's music will recognize as his most personal vein. It is related to folk music, most obviously in some of the choral scenes, which strongly recall folk dance or danced games. Memories of Eastern European church music may be there also (there are chorales, hints of the folk-song-based Mass settings once popular in Czechoslovakia). But a nostalgic idealization of all this is as much part of the style as any identifiable component. We hear it most clearly when simple, peasant emotions are being expressed. When, at the Nativity, an armless child is made whole by the Virgin, it is there not in her innocent joy, but in her father's shamed realization of whom he has denied hospitality: ''If I had known, I would have given her the new bed and entertained her in the best room''. And when Mariken, dragged from her nunnery by a personification of her own unruly desires, appeals for help: ''Is there no one here from Moravia?''—at moments like this Martinu's homesickness becomes more than mere sentiment; is taps very deep wells of lucid, radiant eloquence.
Anyone caught by the almost (but never quite) naive solemnity of the style will not mind much that ''Sister Paskalina'' is perhaps a shade too long. Or perhaps it isn't; perhaps the concluding scene (in which Paskalina, miraculously rescued from the stake, returns to her nunnery to find that no one has noticed her absence: the Virgin, confident of her eventual repentance, had taken her place) needs leisured story-telling to build to its perilous but intensely moving fusion of sentiment, piety and peasant exuberance. Even a few flaws in the performance (one or two raw voices; the principals and Belohlavek's direction are thoroughly reliable) hint at another of the work's central qualities: it is a true folk-drama, pageant-like and crying out for amateur involvement, audibly related both to Honegger's Le Roi David and to Britten's Noye's Fludde. Enough: you will have gathered that you won't get any dry-as-dust critical reservations about this lovely work from me. As further inducement there's even a vintage piece of Supraphon translator-ese: the deformed girl, showing her stumps to the Virgin, apologizes for having ''only these hooklets to hold my booklets''.'

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