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Fanfare USA 2 "this disc become a must-own for anyone fond of the medium of a capella chorus".

March 5, 2018

David DeBoor Canfield

Fanfare USA 2
MARTIN Mass for Two Four-Part Choirs. Songs of Ariel. MARTINŮ 4 Songs for the Virgin Mary. Romance from the Dandelions1  Marcus Creed, cond; 1Klaudia Kidon (sop); 1Emil Lykke (ten); 1Daniel Åberg (dr); Danish National Vocal Ens  OUR 6.220671 (64:13) 
The present CD draws four a capella choral works together from two of the early-to-mid 20th-century’s most significant composers into one pleasing package. Each composer contributes one sacred and one secular work, and beyond the similarity of their names (albeit, not their nationalities, as Frank Martin was Swiss and Bohuslav Martinů was Czech), they shared 1890 as a common year of birth. The thing that immediately struck me as I began listening to the first work, Martin’s Mass for Two Four-Part Choirs, was the purity of sound and accuracy of intonation produced by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under its conductor Marcus Creed, who has his ensemble largely eschew vibrato. The resulting blend of the group is admirable, with no individual voices sticking out from the texture. The group’s purity of vocal production is especially well-suited to Martin’s backward-looking Mass, which includes many chant-like melodic lines intertwined in contrapuntal fashion, and undergirded by a modal harmonic construction. Martin also makes considerable use of pedal point notes which seem to amplify the timeless nature of the sacred texts. His exquisite and ethereal harmonies add to the heavenly effect, and despite the eight different choral parts, the textures remain lucid at all times.
Martin was born into a Reformed Protestant home (his father was an ordained minister), but of course numerous Protestant composers (including the Lutheran Bach) have set the mass to music. The Swiss master kept this work to himself for more than 40 years, as a private expression of love and devotion to God. It might have remained in a drawer until the composer’s death but for the fact that German choral conductor Franz Bunnert somehow saw the score, and pestered Martin until he allowed him to premiere it in 1963. To state that a composer cloistering any mature work he has written is a rarity would be rather much an understatement, but it should be remembered that Martin did not consider himself a serious professional composer until he was well into his 50s.
Martin’s other work herein is his Songs of Ariel, the only other a capella work in his oeuvre. The song texts are drawn from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and while remaining within the parameters of tonality, its rhythms, harmonies, and the level of drama are all increased in complexity and modernity. Some of these songs, such as “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” have been set by countless composers, but in Martin’s setting, one can almost hear the small creatures flitting about. In others such as “Before you can say ‘Come and go’,” Martin himself selected the text from Shakespeare’s play to set. The piece in any case is a delight from beginning to end.
The Four Songs of the Virgin Mary by Bohuslav Martinů are as simple and direct in their presentation as the young woman depicted in the Scriptures is portrayed. The composer wrote this work after he had received a grant to travel to Paris, and with him, and he brought along a number of texts by his Czech compatriots. The music well follows the texts, for example in the Annunciation, where the Virgin is told by the angel of her soon-to-come bearing of the Messiah, the music reflects Mary’s confusion about how such a thing could happen to a virgin, followed by a quiet close reflecting her faithful acceptance of the angel’s message. Not all of the four songs have something to do with Christian tradition, however: the third of them is entitled “Our Lady’s Breakfast,” and is a bizarre comical ballad about the newly born Jesus helping his mother catch fish for her morning meal.
Martinů’s Romance from the Dandelions closes the concert, and is the longest single movement of any heard (being of greater duration than all four of his Songs of the Virgin Mary). The composer, who was an avid anti-Nazi, had had to flee from France when the Nazis invaded that country in 1940. Arriving in the US, Martinů became homesick for his native Czechoslovakia, although he was never to see his homeland again. This extended choral work was a result of that longing for his native country, and tells the story of a Czech village girl awaiting the return of her beloved soldier sweetheart, who has gone off into the battlefield. The text was written by Miloslav Bureš, a childhood friend of the composer. Its several sections juxtapose ensemble songs with numerous soprano solos by the girl who has waited seven years for her beloved to return. In one of them she exclaims, “Our love should have served us better than this!” The significance of the dandelions of the title is that their initial gold color portrays the wedding rings that the girl is hoping will commence, but when they mature and turn white, their seeds are blown off into the world to make a single ring for the soldier who is out there somewhere. The cantata ends with the story being presented from the soldier’s point of view, but we never learn whether the couple was ever reunited. Martinů’s music is nevertheless optimistic in tone, as well as possessing the longing quality one would expect.
The splendid choral artistry of Creed (who lives up to his name by including a Credo in the collection) and his Danish singers by itself would be worth the price of admission here, but given the heart-wrenchingly beautiful music, this disc become a must-own for anyone fond of the medium of a capella chorus. David DeBoor Canfield

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