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“A Wreath of Carnations”
Bohuslav Martinu: Songs Vol. 1

Jana Wallingerová (Mezzo-Soprano), Giorgio Koukl (Piano)
Recorded at the Koruni studio, Prague, (15-17 March 2010) – 79’
Naxos #: 8.572588 – Downloadable booklet with Czech, French, and German texts with English translations

This album from Naxos features no less than 79 minutes of music packed onto one disc. After a cursory look through the catalog, this seems to be one of the only CDs devoted entirely to the songs of Bohuslav Martinu. The composer’s songs are featured chestnuts of recital discs, such as Magdalena Kozená’s recent “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (Deutsche Grammophon 0289 477 6665 0 GH), but aren’t part of the standard repertoire. The obvious answer as to why Martinu’s songs are so underrepresented on disc is the language, as the Czech composer set texts mostly in his native tongue and like Russian songs, the barrier can be formidable for a singer.

The texts are from various French, Spanish, German and English poets, with the majority coming from Czech poets in the original language. The poetic content of the vast majority of songs is quite a contrast to Martinu’s German fore-bearers, who often chose from among the most dramatically vivid and narratively involved poems of their times. That’s not to say that Martinu set less than worthy poems, but they are of a completely different affect, often having folk narratives or matter of fact stories typically befitting an English madrigal.

Martinu thus adopts a style that is incredibly compact and efficient. Simple math will tell you this as there are 41 songs in the span of 79 minutes! Such a program is a challenge to stick with, particularly given the young composer’s formulaic endings to songs, which gives the accompaniment the last word in tidying up the moral or thought of the poem. This brings us to a flaw with this disc: the presentation. Given that there are 41 songs, almost all of which are in Czech and unfamiliar, it is absolutely vital that the texts and translations be at hand through the entire 79 minutes and Naxos does not include them with the disc. They give a web link for the listener to download all 11 pages of the texts. As much as I am for economy and conservation, I imagine this will be an annoyance to many listeners.

With my complaining out of the way, I will get to what matters most: the music. It really is beautiful and unique in its own way. Martinu was perfectly adept at setting these poems for which he obviously had a great affinity. There is a charming folkish wit to the music, which is highly effective. One of the most striking aspects of the composer’s style is the maturity and complexity of the accompaniment, which conveys the narrative as effectively as Hugo Wolf and his contemporaries did with the piano. The vocal writing is tuneful, yet not predictable, and Martinu challenges the singer in his phrasing and transitions, often navigating the voice and accompaniment on different tracks until they meet at the end. The most successful pieces on the disc are the ones that depart from the folk idiom and surprise the listener with their dark undertones, such as “Wreath of Carnations” and “Dead Love.” The “Gnat’s Wedding Dance” is a delightful story and entertaining song which finds the composer at his most irreverent and grounded in his cultural roots.

Jana Wallingerová sings impressively with a mastery of the music and authenticity of its origin. The Mezzo has a throaty, large sound that lacks some finesse and focus, but is always in tune and vibrant. Her most touching singing is in 2 Songs (H. 31) which are performed with striking sensitivity and beauty. Her diction in the French texts is not distinguished, with the German being a bit better. Giorgio Koukl is her brilliant accompanist providing Wallingerová with support and a musically satisfying propulsion. The sound quality is excellent. While not being a particularly “live” recording, it has plenty of warmth and the piano/voice perspective is excellent.

While discs with smaller portions of Martinu’s songs may be more appropriate for the merely curious, this disc will be satisfying and extremely important to the connoisseurs and academics who have never had a resource like this before. Martinu’s songs are worthy of such treatment, and we are lucky to have them in such caring hands.

Jana Wallingerová’s Website

Matthew Martinez




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