Martinů’s “Field Mass,” Double Concerto Inspire and Delight

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MARTINŮ: Field Mass.* Double Concerto for 2 String Orchestras, Piano & Timpani.+ # Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H. 252# / *Václav Zitek, baritone; *Czech Philharmonic Choir; +Jan Bouše, timpanist; +Josef Růžiča, pianist; *Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; #Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor / Supraphon SU3276-2

This recording, a reissue of a disc from 1985, presents the late Charles Mackerras conducting the music of Bohuslav Martinů with Czech orchestras, choruses and soloists. What’s interesting about this is that this was a time when the Czech Republic was still under the oppressive yoke of the kind of oppressive totalitarian government our loving academics and Democrats here in America are trying to impose on us. Having been introduced to the wonderful music of Martinů through his piano concertos, played and recorded by the late Rudolf Firkušny back in the 1990s (after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I am slowly but surely coming up to speed on many of his other works. These are gems.

The Field Mass, composed in late 1939, represents the composer’s reaction to the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis (a bloodless coup to start with, but not for long) and the beginning of the long and painful war. The text represents men praying for their lives. One of the things I always loved about Mackerras is that he, like Edward Downes, Benjamin Britten and Colin Davis pre-1990, was one of those British conductors unafraid to take on new challenges and give them full-blooded readings. There is, thus, nothing timid or underplayed in these works; even the quiet passages seethe with life and an undercurrent of tension. Moreover, his being able to lead Czech orchestras almost assured the performances of the right musical “accent” and feel about them. In short, I can’t imagine them played much better than they are here. The only facet of this performance of the Field Mass that I could possibly see bettered is the vocal performance of the solo baritone. Václav Zitek has a rich and powerful voice, but it is not beautiful and is slightly unsteady. On the other hand, his powers of expression are first-rate. The recorded sound also helps greatly in that it adds dimension to the performance.

The Double Concerto is a virtuoso piece for the soloists and two string orchestras, represented here by the full string section of the Prague Radio Symphony. This is much more the virtuosic Martinů that one hears in the symphonies and piano concertos: exciting, breathlessly driving music, keeping the listener riveted to what is going on. Even the slow movement, a true Largo, has an undercurrent of menace about it. One online annotator has suggested that this work is “generally considered his masterpiece along with, perhaps, the third symphony.”

Interestingly, the late-period Frescos of Piero della Francesca are cut from the same tonal but harmonically-astringent cloth as the previous work. There is an evident attempt at leavening the mood here with passages of surprising lyric beauty, but this music would never be confused with Respighi’s Pines of Rome as a relatively lightweight series of tone poems. Interestingly, the three sections are simply given tempo markings (Andante poco moderato, Adagio and Poco allegro) rather than having titles descriptive of the frescoes under consideration. I remain amazed at the high level of intensity that Mackerras achieved in even this piece. As much as I admired his conducting, he was not always this intense, but the spirit and drive of these performances are simply incredible. The “Adagio” section contains some brief allusions to Strauss, but not the sugary Strauss of the later operas; rather, it is a paraphrase from the latter part of Salome. But the reference is brief, and in the latter half of the movement he includes swirling wind figures of great originality. The last movement includes an aggressive series of stabbing string figures in eighths before the music evolves into a pastoral series of motifs played by the violas and/or cellos, following which the trumpets interject abrasive figures into the shifting melange of rhythm and punching timpani.

This is a must-have disc if you are a fan of Martinů’s music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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