MARTIN: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Cristoph Rilke / Marjana Lipovšek, alto; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lothar Zagrosek, conductor / Orfeo C 164 881 A
Swiss composer Frank Martin, nearing age 50, was strongly drawn to Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection of brief poems, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, but kept saying to himself, “This is far too long for a song cycle.” Really, it wasn’t if you think of Schubert’s Die Winterreise (24 poems/songs), but Martin, always an economical composer by nature, didn’t really want to drag it out. But his wife, who kept translating Rilke’s superb poetry from German to French for him to understand, eventually drew him to the point where he just had to set it to music.
So he wrote this extended orchestral song cycle, almost a monodrama for one singer with orchestra, and it is superb. And not just superb for Frank Martin; superb for this type of music in every respect. He managed to mirror the mood and feelings of the text with unerring accuracy, producing a work that flows from song to song in a continuous fashion. This is why I describe it as a monodrama, and also why it is imperative that the singer be a first-class singing actress.
Because each song is perfectly tailored to the words, and because each poem/song is complete in itself, one can perform some of it without necessarily doing all of it. The same thing, for those who forget, was done with Winterreise for decades. But as in the case of Winterreise, Der Cornet gains in intensity and meaning when you hear the whole thing performed together, in order. Indeed, certain songs, such as Nos. 11 (“Rast”) through 13 (“Und Einer steht”), are musically linked and thus should not be separated.
What makes Der Cornets even more remarkable is that Martin creates this tension with a relatively small orchestra, often using just the strings. The winds and brasses are occasionally brought in for color and occasional dramatic punch, but he very rarely scored the full orchestra to play together as a unit. This not only gives the score of Der Cornets considerable variety, but more importantly, it leaves a “hole” in the score for the voice to come through without having to complete with instruments. For the most part, the music is tonal, indeed even more so than his remarkable opera Le vin Herbé, despite the lack of memorable “tunes” and a disdain for high notes. In short, your average opera lover will hate this piece but most lieder fanciers will love it. I was particularly struck by the edgy waltz tempo set up for “Das Fest”
Lipovšek, one of my all-time favorite contraltos/mezzos, has always been a great interpreter and she is in her element here. Moreover, this was recorded at a time (1988) when her voice was at its very freshest, able to move seamlessly throughout its range at all dynamics levels and with various expressive accents with seamless ease. As for Lothar Zagrosek’s conducting, it’s good without being quite as brilliant as I might have liked. A conductor of genius, like Michael Gielen or Esa-Pekka Salonen, could bring much more out of the score; but then, they might not have had a singer like Lipovšek, and she is too special for me to want to relinquish. The sonics are pretty decent, with the voice recorded forward which I like, without creating much in the way of atmosphere. Best of all, this release—at least in its original format—includes all the lyrics in German, English and French. Well worth seeking out!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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