MARTINU What Men Live By. Symphony No 1 (Bělohlávek)
Depending how you count them, there are 16 Martinů operas, ranging from single-acters – Alexandre bis (1937) and Ariane (1958) – to the full-evening Julietta (1937) and The Greek Passion (1957 59). The ‘opera-pastoral in one act’ What Men Live By (1952) inhabits an expressive world somewhere between Ariane and the folk cantata Kytice (2/18). What Men Live By was also Martinů’s first opera since Julietta and Alexandre bis, which had been completed in pre-war Paris, and was composed following the final staging of his 1935 one-act Comedy on the Bridge in New York in 1951.
The scenario, from Tolstoy’s short story Where Love Is, God Is, is straightforward and charming: a lonely cobbler finds solace in reading the Bible and, in a dream, is promised a visit from Christ the next day. Only after he has helped out, in turn, an old soldier, a poor woman with an infant, and a boy trying to steal an apple, does he realise that the visit from the Saviour was not quite in the form he had expected. Martinů’s limpid score counterpoints and underlines the action with beautifully understated finesse and perfect pacing. This all-Czech performance from December 2014 uses the original English text and is enchanting, the odd stilted pronunciation aside (eg ‘gal O shes’)!
The coupling of the First Symphony (1942) is especially poignant, the last recording of a Martinů work by the late Jiří Bělohlávek. As might be imagined, there are few interpretative differences between this version, recorded live with the Czech PO in the wonderful Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinium in Prague, and the Gramophone Award-winning account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. While this new, final account does not displace the older one, with this orchestra in that hall, it is something special. If I sound misty-eyed, well I am.