Martinů’s “Epic of Gilgamesh” in English at Last


MARTINŮ: The Epic of Gilgamesh / Lucy Crowe, sop; Andrew Staples, ten; Derek Welton, bar; Jan Martiník, bass; Simon Callow, narr; Prague Philharmonic Choir. Dzech Philharmonic Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, cond / Supraphon SU 4225-2

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts, from roughly 2114 B.C. It concerns Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk and the strongest of men, a brave warrior and fair judge, who surrounded the city of Uruk with magnificent walls and glorious temple towers. He began his reign as a despot, using slave labor to erect these edifices and raping any woman who struck his fancy, even the wife of one of his warriors and the daughter of one of his noblemen. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and created a wild man named Enkidu who was just as powerful. Enkidu starts out living with animals, but a hunter sends a temple prostitute to him who coverts him to the pleasures of human love. She teaches him everything he needs to know to be a man, and Enkidu is outraged when he hears of Gilgamesh and his violent excesses, so he travels to Uruk to challenge him. When he arrives, Gilgamesh is about to force his way into a bride’s chamber, but Enkidu blocks his way and wrestles him to the ground. Although Gilgamesh wins the fight, he comes to respect him and the two become great friends. Enkidu forces Gilgamesh to change his ways and become an enlightened leader.

From SparkNotes:

Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals. A terrifying demon named Humbaba, the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, guards it. The two heroes make the perilous journey to the forest, and, standing side by side, fight with the monster. With assistance from Shamash the sun god, they kill him. Then they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into an enormous gate, make the rest into a raft, and float on it back to Uruk. Upon their return, Ishtar, the goddess of love, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh spurns her. Enraged, the goddess asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish him. The bull comes down from the sky, bringing with him seven years of famine. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and kill it. The gods meet in council and agree that one of the two friends must be punished for their transgression, and they decide Enkidu is going to die. He takes ill, suffers immensely, and shares his visions of the underworld with Gilgamesh. When he finally dies, Gilgamesh is heartbroken.

Grief-stricken and contemplating his own eventual death, Gilgamesh dons animal skins and travels to the ends of the earth to seek out the mysteries of life and death. Along the way he seeks out Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah, who has been granted eternal life, and and Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him how he might avoid death too. Gilgamesh’s journey takes him to the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, where the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the morning.

Again, from SparkNotes:

When Gilgamesh insists that he be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a test. If you think you can stay alive for eternity, he says, surely you can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh tries and immediately fails. So Utnapishtim orders him to clean himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just as Gilgamesh is departing, however, Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and takes it with him, planning to share it with the elders of Uruk. But a snake steals the plant one night while they are camping. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin and becomes young again.

When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he can’t live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement—the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.

This bizarre story first caught Martinů’s fancy in 1928, when an English translation of the epic was published in London. It kept coming back to him until finally, in 1954, he began to set it to music. After its completion, the only place that would risk mounting the huge secular cantata was Switzerland, so he hurriedly translated the text into Suisse-Deutsch. It has generally been performed in German, and occasionally Czech (Martinů’s native tongue), ever since. This is its first recording in the original English edition. It would be nice to say that, because of this, I could understand every word that was sung…nice, but untrue. The chorus’ English is Czech-accented although the consonants are clear and sometimes understandable, but Czech bass Jan Martiník swallows his consonants so badly that most of the time it didn’t even sound like English, let alone English I could understand. Thankfully, narrator Simon Callow’s diction is as clear as a bell, which helps the English-speaking listener follow the story somewhat better. Tenor Andrew Staples’ diction is also fairly good, baritone Derek Welton so-so. Soprano Lucy Crowe, who is often the “girl with the curl” vocally, is in absolutely splendid voice here; this is clearly one of her best recordings made in the past five years. She tries to enunciate clearly but is obviously working hard on maintaining a well-focused tone in the high tessitura of the music, which works somewhat against diction. The only English sopranos of the past 70 years whose English diction was crystal-clear no matter what were Gwen Catley and Heather Harper. I often wish others would listen to their records and emulate them.

As for the actual performance, diction aside, it is magnificent. The liner notes make a great deal out of Martinů’s stated preferences for phrasing, accelerandi and even tempi, which sometimes contradicted what he wrote in the score, but without a score in front of me I simply judged what I heard and compared it to my existing recording of the work (in Czech) by reciter Otakar Brousek, soprano Marcela Machotková, tenor Jíři Zahrdniček, baritone Václav Zitek, bass Karel Průša and conductor Jíři Bêlohlávek, also on Supraphon (SU39182). In my view, this new recording is not only strong competition but even better. The modern digital sonics are absolutely stunning, almost creating a 3D effect in places even when played on my conventional stereo system (a good one, but not SACD). The natural hall reverberation captured here is astounding.

Despite their flaws in diction, both Martiník and Welton sing with both firm tones and dramatic conviction. Staples’ tenor is a little light for the music but he is a superb artist, and as I said, Crowe’s voice is truly magnificent here. Manfred Honeck conducts with both a good ear for color and a fine sense of drama; he knows when to caress the line lyrically and when to inject bite and drive into the proceedings. The music is clearly some of Martinů’s best; I have no idea why he could only find forces in Switzerland to mount a production in his own time. Largely tonal, it nevertheless keeps one’s interest through the use of frequent chromatic movement and biting rhythms. Martinů is one of those composers, along with Mendelssohn, Dvořak, Koechlin and Frank Martin, whose music continues to impress me no matter how many pieces I hear by them. They wrote very few duds. Here, I was particularly impressed by his use of the soprano voice as an instrument in the orchestra, singing wordless downward portamenti for coloristic effect, not to mention his extremely varied use of orchestration. And the whole is greater than the individual parts, making a strong impression as long as one is not listening for memorable tunes or high notes to thrill the ear.

In short, a truly fabulous recording of a great work, finally given in the composer’s original conception. If you are an admirer of Martinů, this album is a must. And the packaging is simply spectacular, a fold-over cardboard album including the CD in its own separate sleeve along with a 162-page booklet including the full text in English, German, French and Czech. Well worth your investing the $13.60 that Presto Classical is currently charging for the physical disc!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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