CD review: Martinu Cantatas

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

Martinu: Cantatas
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Vasilek (Supraphon)

In the late 1950s, Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) turned his mind to Moravian folk poetry — images of the Czech highlands where he grew up — and wrote four little cantatas with wistful names like ‘Romance of the Dandelions’ and ‘Legend of Smoke from Potato Tops’. The last one, ‘Mikes of the Mountains’, tells of a shepherd who saves his goats from a snowstorm. It all tastes of soil and nostalgia but these are more than simple rustic tone paintings. Martinu instructed that they shouldn’t sound sentimental and he spliced the folksy choral passages with stark harmonies and off-kilter percussive stuff. Instrumentation includes accordion and ‘drumming on a chair’ — the sounds creak, jolt, motor and soothe. The Prague choir gets the balance right: vivid character and resonant voices but never saccharine and rhythmically taught. This is the ensemble that premiered three of the cantatas (in a previous guise) and it’s hard to imagine singing of more authority in Martinu’s music.