Frank Martin’s Song Cycles

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MARTIN: Sechs Monologe aus “Jedermann”1 Drey Minnelieder.2 Trois Chants de Noël.2 Poèmes de la Mort 1,3 / 1Volker Arendts, bar; 2Susanne Thomas-Martin, sop; 3Christian Mücke, ten; Wolfram Schild, bs; Hugo Germán Gaido, Andreas Berg, el-gtr; Gerhard Koch, e-bs; Wolfgang Weigel, cond / Cantate CAN58013

This is a reissue of a CD recorded in 1998 and originally issued in 2000 containing four song cycles by that most original and interesting of 20th-century Swiss composers, Frank Martin. One of the more curious things about this release is that the second cycle, Drey Minnelieder, was written for soprano with guitar and flute, yet it is presented here with only piano accompaniment. The upside is that the liner notes for these pieces were written by Martin himself or by his wife Maria, which gives us a much closer look into their genesis.

Martin’s music fascinates me because it was a successful combination of tonality and atonality. As far back as the early 1930s, he developed his own thematic and harmonic style that kept lyrical top lines afloat over a sea of atonal accompaniments, and no two of his compositions really sound alike. Moreover, he was able to keep up this high level of creativity almost until the time of his death in 1974. Yet he is still rarely played outside of Europe; most Americans can only discover his superb music through recordings.

The Six Monologues for “Everyman” were written in 1943 at the behest of baritone Max Christian, using Hugo von Hoffmansthat’s Everyman as its basis. At first, Martin tells us, he didn’t think they could be adapted to song—he considered himself very sensitive to words and how they were to be put to music—but eventually found six that he could use. This is the most problematic performance on this album, since baritone Volker Arendts had a very wobbly voice and was not really an interesting interpreter, but happily I discovered a live recording of this cycle given in 1960 by the great baritone Gérard Souzay with pianist Dalton Baldwin. It is available for free streaming on YouTube in six individual segments under the names of the songs: “Ist alls zu End das Freudenmahl,” “Act Gott, wie graust mir vor dem Tod,” “Ist als wenn eins gerufen hatt,” So wollt ich ganz zernichtet sein,” “Ja! Ich glaub; solches hat er vollbracht” and “O ewiger Gott! O gottliches Gesicht!,” and they are absolutely magnificent performances in every respect except that of the sound quality of the piano.

The music is surprisingly “gray” and somewhat colorless for Martin, and in fact both the melodic lines and the piano accompaniment sound very Germanic, almost like the music of Schreker. All the songs are on the slow side and mostly in minor keys, or at least tonality tending towards the minor.

Drey Minnelieder is a short cycle written in 1960 on mediaeval texts of the Nativity and Pontius Pilate, taken from the Mystère de la Passion of Arnoul Gréban (15th century) and Ode à la Musique of Guillaume de Machaut (14th century). As noted in the first paragraph, there is also a setting of this cycle for flute, guitar and soprano, but here they are presented only in the piano-accompanied version. Soprano Thomas-Martin, who at the time of recording was working as a singer in the Cologne Opera Chorus, had a solid (no wobble) but edgy, slightly nasal voice, but she was also a very intense interpreter who performs these songs with great intensity. Here the music also sounds Germanic, but rather more lyrical, at least in the top line, almost like a cross between Strauss and Hindemith. Thomas-Martin also sings the 3 Christmas Songs of Albert Rudhardt, a poet from Geneva who had previously provided the libretto for his satiric opera La Nique à Satan. These were written as a Christmas present for his then 15-year-old daughter Françoise as well as for his wife Maria who was a flautist. Interestingly, a flute is used in this recording but the player is unidentified. This music sounds very French in a somewhat modern style (think of Poulenc) but is by no means atonal.

Martin’s Poèmes de la Mort, written between 1969 and 1971, may be the first real classical piece ever written for electric guitars and bass. Martin admits being fascinated by their timbral possibilities when he heard them in pop music, but here they are used in a strictly classical fashion. However, when I say “strictly classical fashion,” I certainly don’t mean that they are used like acoustic guitars would be or in a soft-relaxed classical style. They retain their edginess and, in fact, are set to music that uses modal scales and odd harmonies, a shifting rhythmic base and strophic top lines for the singers. Here, again, Martin presents us with an entirely different style, this one almost sounding like something by Harry Partch with its sliding, uncertain harmonic underpinning. In its own peculiar way, this is a real masterpiece, and for whatever reason Arendts’ voice has no wobble here.

I should also mention that there is a recording of Drey Minnelieder in its original setting for guitar and flute by soprano Barbara Vigfussen. Her voice is much prettier and less edgy than that of Thomas-Martin, but oddly, she often sounds as if her voice is sagging a bit in pitch. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting alternative.

For the most part, then, this CD is well recommended. The booklet contains full texts and translations of all the songs as well.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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