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 date?
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 repertoire?
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 us?
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 enjoyable.