During the second world war Martinu went into exile in the US, later moving to France, where he grieved over the state of the world. The Communist regime in his native Czechoslovakia and the McCarthy era in the US seemed equally abhorrent to him, as if “everything we have seen and learnt in life no longer has any validity”.
It was in that mood that he turned to The Epic of Gilgamesh. The idea of a “profane secular cantata” based on the ancient poem from Mesopotamia had been in his mind before. Now its themes of human friendship and wisdom in the face of impending death carried a high-minded and timely message.
To make the work performance-friendly, he set a text not in Czech, but in English — though Reginald Campbell Thompson’s translation is sometimes so contorted as to read more like a foreign language (“In the way of a woman he snooded his locks, sprouted luxuriant growth of his hair, like the awns of the barley”).
For better or worse here it is in the premiere recording to use the original text that Martinu cut and adapted for his use. Every word is clear, too, thanks to a fine quartet of soloists, headed by baritone Derek Welton and bass Jan Martiník. Lucy Crowe is the haunting soprano, Andrew Staples the able tenor, and Simon Callow brings the spoken narration vividly to life.
Martinu’s music is filled with imaginative touches, though “epic” is not the first description that would come to mind for the many short sections in this restlessly episodic score. Manfred Honeck conducts the excellent Prague Philharmonic Choir and Czech Philharmonic in a high-quality performance.
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