Bohuslav Martinů’s cantatas have been re-released six decades
since their first Supraphon album, made by the Czech Choir and the Czech
Philharmonic Children’s Choir, led by the chorus master Jan Kühn. The new
recording (SU 4198–2), supported by the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation, meets
the highest performance requirements and embraces the composer’s original
intention. Besides the Prague Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Lukáš Vasilek,
it features superlative soloists, the soprano Pavla Vykopalová, the baritone
Jiří Brückler, the pianist Ivo Kahánek, as well as the Bennewitz Quartet,
the narrator Jaromír Meduna, and other artists.
The new album made by the Prague Philharmonic Choir contains
recordings of four Bohuslav Martinů cantatas that form a loose cycle pertaining
to the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. How many times have they been recorded to
Several complete recordings had been made previously. The first was created by
Jan Kühn, with the Czech Choir and the Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir.
Considered the best of them is the album produced by his son, Pavel Kühn, and
the Kühn Choir of Prague at the end of the 1980s. The Prague Philharmonic
Choir’s most recent recording, under the chorus master Jaroslav Brych, was
made 15 years ago.
The best-known of the cantatas is The Opening of the Springs, which
has been regularly performed by professional ensembles, amateur and
children’s choirs alike. The new CD contains recordings of another three
cantatas: Legend of the Smoke from Potato Tops, Romance of the Dandelions, and
Mikeš of the Mountains. How frequently have the pieces been performed at
concerts? And are they included in the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s standard
Yes, they are indeed – we have performed the cantatas quite often.
Nevertheless, owing to their being quite challenging to perform, they do not
commonly appear in concert programmes. The best-known and most frequently
presented of the cantatas is The Opening of the Springs, simpler than and
different from the others, and very popular among the audience. Undoubtedly the
most difficult of the four pieces is the Romance of the Dandelions, in which the
choir sings 12 minutes a cappella. I would even venture to say that it is one
of the most challenging Czech choral compositions there is.
Could you tell us how long it took the Prague Philharmonic Choir to
prepare for the recording?
We didn’t actually spend that much time preparing ourselves for the recording,
as about a year and a half previously we had performed the complete cantatas at
the Rudolfinum hall in Prague. And subsequently we had sung some of them on
other occasions too, so we were well familiar with them prior to plunging into
the actual recording work.
What is it that makes the cantatas so challenging? Is it the
vocal-technical aspect or the performance requirements?
I think it relates to both. The higher vocal parts in particular are quite
extreme in places. Martinů led the voices in a somewhat instrumental way;
hence, now and then they are tough to handle for the singers. Moreover, some
chords are difficult to adjust and sonically level. Yet when you have negotiated
this, the cantatas sound truly wonderful. The performance itself is not easy
either. Each of the cantatas is a collage of a huge amount of musical ideas,
which have to be somehow interconnected so as to form a logical whole – a
daunting task for the performer indeed.
What about the texts the cantatas are set to? The story of The
Opening of the Springs is relatively clear and comprehensible. What do the other
three cantatas contain and depict?
The most dynamic in this respect is the Legend of the Smoke from Potato Tops. It
depicts the story of the Virgin Mary, who descends from the altar at a small
country church so as to find her son, which is followed by a number of unique
episodes and comical situations. Far more clouded is the story of the shepherd
boy in Mikeš of the Mountains, with the plot being not entirely clear at first
listen, so it is perhaps advisable to read the printed text. Totally different
is the Romance of the Dandelions, in which, I would say, the main role is
played by love and the atmosphere in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands in spring
and summer. The audience can let themselves be carried away by the splendid
music and the tender emotions, merely perceiving the story, which is neither
epic nor specific, in the background.
How did Martinů come across Miloslav Bureš’s poems?
The two knew each other, both of them were Polička natives, friends. In 1954,
Bureš sent a text of his to Martinů abroad and the composer was presently
intrigued by the subject. For Martinů, it brought back memories of his
childhood, of his native region.
The new recording has been made on the basis of the cantatas’
critical edition, which is currently being prepared. How does the new edition
differ from the previous versions?
The critical edition is yet to be published – at the present time, it is
ready to be issued at Bärenreiter. Therefore, we worked with the original
edition, yet we incorporated into it all the revisions suggested by Mr. Vít
Zouhar, the excellent editor of the new critical edition. In this “cleaned”
version, the cantatas are not diametrically different, but they include
modifications in interesting details – the text, melody, rhythm, harmony, as
well as, occasionally, instrumentation and tempo. Some passages, which in the
older version come across as rather puzzling, are now utterly logical, far more
comprehensive and convincing.
Could you tell us something about the recording process?
The recording was long and gruelling, entailing plenty of intense work. The
collaboration with the recording director Milan Puklický and the recording
engineer Aleš Dvořák was superb, as they and I shared the same idea of the
resulting product’s quality. That represented an immense advantage.
The album was recorded at the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum in
Prague. Was it your first and clear choice?
There are not many venues in Prague in which the Prague Philharmonic Choir could
record such acoustically demanding pieces. The Rudolfinum was the best choice,
given the number of performers within such a large-scale project.
In addition to the Prague Philharmonic Choir members, the recording
features interesting guests. Could you introduce some of them to
First and foremost, I would like to mention Pavla Vykopalová, who sings all
the soprano solos in all the four cantatas. I deem her to be an ideal performer
of Bohuslav Martinů’s vocal music. Another guest was the magnificent
baritone Jiří Brückler, who sings the legendary finale in The Opening of the
Springs. The other vocal solos were recorded by members of the choir: Ludmila
Kromková, Martin Slavík and Petr Svoboda. And it was also a great honour for
me to work with the stellar Bennewitz Quartet and the renowned pianist Ivo
Kahánek. Yet all the other guests did a marvellous job too.
As a conductor, you have devoted to Bohuslav Martinů’s music for
many years. How would you describe your relation to it?
I am really keen on Martinů’s music, and I feel good with it. Some of his
works are not at all easy to perform. Plenty of aspects the composer did not pay
a great deal of attention to have to be conjectured: the dynamics, tempos, and
so on. Furthermore, it is frequently necessary to correct errors, which abound
in the majority of the existing editions. Consequently, it is a bag and baggage
interpretation, sometimes even more than that, and the path to it is often quite
intricate. But it is precisely why I find Martinů’s music highly