Gramophone review

This is a delight. Martinu’s chamber choral music is hardly well known even among specialists, so this beautifully performed anthology of music spanning the years 1934-1959 is a genuine revelation. The title ‘Madrigals’ is used as a generic name for the disc: while much of the music here is secular, there are also two devotional cycles, and while most of it is unaccompanied, one cycle includes violin, and another violin and piano.

The disc opens with the composer’s latest cycle, Madrigaly, for soprano solo and mixed choir, of which the most remarkable is certainly the third, the lamenting ‘Na tom svete nic stálého’ (‘Nothing lasts in this world’), but the cycle Petrklíc (‘Primroses’), from five years earlier, is consistently ear-catching in the interplay between female voices, violin and piano. No mere salon music, this is a colourful and absorbing distillation of Moravian folk song.

The Czech Madrigals date from 1939 and are thus contemporary with the Field Mass. The composer was not entirely satisfied with them but they were nonetheless given a first performance by the extraordinary Prague Madrigalists under the indefatigable conductor Miroslav Venhoda in 1965; the chamber approach of Martinu Voices is certainly more congenial to them than the vast resources of the Madrigalists but Venhoda’s spirit hovers beneficently over them nonetheless. It must be said that they are somewhat uneven in quality, but there are several that are truly memorable, perhaps especially the third, the moving Daj mi, Boze (‘Let me know, Lord’).

From 1951 come the lovely Three Sacred Songs for female chorus and violin. There are many observations to be made about Moravian tradition here, the composer making himself a link in a chain including Janácek and Iva Bittová, but even if you know nothing of that you will still be astonished by their rapt beauty. The unaccompanied Four Songs about the Virgin Mary date from 16 years earlier and are more conventional in many ways, but are nonetheless powerfully affecting expressions of folk devotion (perhaps ‘The Virgin Mary’s Breakfast’ is the most touching). Finally, the Five Czech Madrigals, from 1948, give us the madrigalian Martinu at the height of his powers, alert to every nuance of the text and producing short settings of tremendous, concentrated power and great beauty – I defy any listener not to be astounded by the brilliant universe contained in a grain of sand that is the first of them, ‘The message delivered by the dove’.

Performances are outstanding throughout. The voices are fresh and responsive, and Lukás Vasilek once again proves that he is a true master of choral conducting. There is also an excellent, detailed booklet note by Vít Zouhar.

Ivan Moody