MARTINÜ:  The Epic of Gilgamesh
Ivan Kusnjer, baritone; Stefvan Margita, tenor; Ludek Vele, bass Eva Depoltová, soprano; Milan Karpisek, speaker
Slovak Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Zdenek Kosler, cond.
NAXOS 8.555138  (B) (DDD) TT:  55:31
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Books, theater and music comprised Martinu's main artistic enthusiasms. When he wasn't composing, he would haunt the second-hand bookstalls of Paris. Unlike many composers (Brahms comes to mind), his literary taste was quite high and a bit rarified. Where some cheap little melodrama might satisfy the dramatic needs of some composers, surrealist poetry and world literature attracted Martinu.

The oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh comes from Martinu's last period. Completed in 1955, it is his last large work for chorus and orchestra. He then embarked on his final major project, an opera on Kazantzakis's The Greek Passion. Martinu first read Gilgamesh in English, somewhere around 1930 (probably took him a while, since, while his French was excellent, his English always wobbled a bit). He spent over twenty years absorbing the poem. When the time came to come up with a libretto, he translated the English version into Czech. The oratorio took a characteristically short time, and Martinu completed several other projects as well during the same period, notably his chamber cantatas on the poetry of Bures. Because Martinu wrote so much and so quickly, many have made the mistake of undervaluing his output, on the theory that quick can't mean good. I admit my indifference to particular pieces, almost all of them juvenilia, but aside from those, each piece has at least held my attention from opening bar to last. I also find it interesting that very few agree on which pieces are schlock. Ultimately, the circumstances of composition have no necessary connection to the result, and one judges the result on its own.

I love Martinu's Gilgamesh and wish it had some currency in concert halls located beyond the Czech Republic. Certainly Martinu's music sells records world-wide, which indicates some demand, but one must recognize some barriers: very few choirs sing in Czech and works not already in orchestral libraries cost money. In general, Czech recordings of Martinu's music strike me as the best available, so my hopes flew up when I saw this recording with Kosler and the Slovak Philharmonic, and on the budget-friendly Naxos label to boot. Naxos stands as the great success story of the classical market, defying the conventional wisdom that what classical buyers want is yet another version of Beethoven's Eroica. Unfortunately, I can't recommend this recording, not with the full-price Belohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic available (Supraphon 11 1824-2 211). The Naxos has its moments (the seduction of Enkidu, chief among them), but the Supraphon raises the little hairs on the back of your neck from the opening bars. The Czech Philharmonic plays several notches above the Slovak Philharmonic. The Slavic Wobble afflicts the Naxos soloists. Rhythms are tighter with the Czech Phil. Finally, the Slovak choir is just too unfocussed, too rhythmically loose, too texturally dull, too mushy in diction, and in general too dramatically negligible to compete with the Czech Philharmonic Chorus. Under Kosler, we get some inkling of the stature of Martinu's oratorio, but Belohlávek reveals the power in the work. The two performances might as well be of different pieces. In short, I can recommend the Naxos release only as a dutiful introduction for those a bit nervous about chancing an unfamiliar work.

S.G.S. (December 2002)