Bêlohlávek Presents a Martinů Premiere

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MARTINŮ: What Men Live By* / Ivan Kusnjer, bar (Martin the cobbler); Lucie Silkenova, sop (Woman with child); Ester Pavlů, alto (Old Woman); Jaroslav Březina, ten (Narrator); Petr Svoboda, bs (Old peasant); Jan Martiník, bs (Stephanitch); Josef Špaček, speaker (Narrator); Lukáš Mareček, speaker (A boy); Martinů Voices / Symphony No. 1+ / Czech Philharmonic Orch.; Jiří Bêlohlávek, cond / Supraphon SU 4233-2 (live: *Prague, December 17-19, 2014 & +January 13-15, 2016)

This CD presents the first commercial recording of Martinů’s one-act “opera-pastoral” What Men Live By. Written in 1952 to a libretto by the composer after Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is, this performance is taken from Jiří Bêlohlávek’s 2014 concert performance. The plot concerns a lonely old cobbler, Martin Aveditch, whose wife and children are dead. He works in a basement where he can see passersby walking in shoes he has made through a window; his only friend, an old peasant, suggests that he read the Bible, which becomes a source of pleasure. He then purportedly hears the voice of Christ telling him to look out the window the next day to see him; when he does, he first sees an old soldier who he invites in for a cup of tea and then takes care of a poor woman and her child. He also puts in a good word for a boy who steals an apple from an old peddler. When Christ again talks to him the next day and asks if he “recognized” him, Martin sees the faces of these people.

Since the opera was written while Martinů lived in America and premiered at the Interlochen Music Festival in 1954, it was written in English, so language is clearly not a barrier, but at only 39 minutes long, it’s easy to see why it’s rarely performed. What to pair with it? Yet the music is, as I say, consistently lovely. This was one of Martinů’s great strengths: he could, and did, write in several different styles. You might almost confuse this for a short opera by Gian Carlo Menotti except that the melodic and rhythmic contours of the music are more interesting and original.

The singers all have passably good if somewhat astringent voices but, being Slavic, sometimes have pronunciation problems with English—not severely so, but noticeable. “Martin,” for instance, comes across as “Mottin.” Of course, this is probably what British and American singers must sound like to Italian, French and German audiences when they sing in those languages.

In the end, however, I felt that although the score was good, it was not really great. The semi-parlando style of most of the sung lines carries the text well and faithfully, but doesn’t stay in the memory. This, too, is a weakness, and one that I’m not sure would sustain it for repeated stage presentations, though the orchestral writing IS interesting, tuneful and memorable. I personally feel that, because of its quasi-religious nature and the subject, it might be given as a Christmas work, the operatic equivalent of Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Certainly, one its blessings is that the vocal writing is grateful; it does not cover a wide compass, is easy to sing, and every so often is meltingly melodic. A cast of good operetta singers (and chorus) could handle this music quite easily, particularly in an intimate setting such as a local church or a school auditorium. It’s shorter than Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, bouncier in its rhythm, and its structure is stronger and more unified. Its orchestra writing, though somewhat challenging, is also not extremely difficult for many big cities’ local chamber orchestras.

As a filler, Bêlohlávek’s 2016 performance of the First Symphony is also included. It’s a fine performance if not measurably better than the one by Cornelius Meister in his Capriccio set of Martinů’s complete symphonies.

Thus this disc is recommended for hearing the opera, which I think you will really life if not love.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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