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Martin / Martinu: The Secret Mass - Creed

Martin / Martinu: The Secret Mass - Creed

OUR Recordings  6.220671

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Martin: Mass for two four-part choirs, Songs of Ariel
Martinu: Four songs of the Virgin Mary, Romance from the Dandelions

Danish National Vocal Ensemble
Marcus Creed (conductor)


For their latest release, the Grammy-Nominated, ECHO Award-winning Danish National Vocal Ensemble under the direction of Marcus Creed have selected a program showcasing the works of two 20th century masters: Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinů. The centre-piece of this album is Martin’s towering masterwork, the Mass for Double Choir. Originally completed in 1926, Martin did not allow the work to be performed until 1963. After its premiere he explained: ‘I felt that a personal expression of religious belief should remain secret and hidden from public opinion.’ Thankfully Martin decided to share his secret; his Mass has become one of the 20th century’s most powerful works composed for a cappella choir.

Beyond the similarity of their surnames there is little in common between the two men. For Swiss-born Martin, his musical breakthrough came early in life when he heard a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. His musical language draws on a wide variety of influences, including Renaissance polyphony, Hindemithian extended tonality and traces of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, but above all, Bach. In contrast, the urbane, cosmopolitan Martinů was a stylistic butterfly, and a bit of a late bloomer. One can easily hear traces of impressionism and Stravinskian neoclassicism throughout his mature style, but in his finest moments, Martinů embraces the love of folklore that inspired his elder countryman, Leoš Janáček.

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Review by John Miller - March 7, 2018

Marcus Creed, conductor for DR VokalEnsemblet since 2014, has constructed a marvellous programme for double choir (two groups of 4 voices) on high-resolution SACD. The Danish National Vocal Ensemble is an elite choir with a pure, transparent Nordic sound. At the same time each of the 18 singers is a professional soloist with a strong personal mode of expression. Danish National Vocal Ensemble have made numerous discs for ‘Dacapo’, ‘OUR Recordings’ and ‘Proprius’.

The programme features two composers with an interesting number of similarities. Frank Martin (1890-1974) and Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) were born in the same year, and both had to endure a similar period of socialism and wars in central Europe, which influenced their musical developments. They both began an early passion for music; Martin played piano before school, and seeing Bach’s St Matthew he become a composer when he was 12 years old. Martinů was born in the top of the church tower in Polika, a small tower in the Bohemian-Moravian highlands. He too took up an instrument; in this case it was the violin, just as he became a teen.

Both composers left quite early for education; the University of Geneva for Martin, where he studied Maths and Physics, but also piano and composition. From 1918-1926 Martin visited Zurich, Rome and Paris where he had further study. In 1932 he became interested in Arnold Schönberg’s 12-tone technique and incorporated some of it into his own compositions. He was already regarded as having much vitality; “Superclassical” was often said about him.

Of the compositions Frank Martin wrote during his learning period, he wrote a Mass for two 4-part singers, in 1922. An Agnus Dei was added four years after beginning. But he never allowed anyone else to see or hear it. Martin, self-critical and personal, withheld for 40 years, locked away until 1963 when he allowed it to be performed. He was a Calvinist (strict Protestant), and he declared “I regard the Mass as a matter between God and me”. Thus this Mass became called “The Secret Mass”.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble have a most beguiling combination of melody and harmony, the choirs expressing hushed reverence, wonder and exultation in the Mass, which are exuded with a clarity and luminosity which are very moving. One might consider Martin’s Mass the most gentle one of the 20th century, having its intimacy of a personal confession of faith (Catholic or Protestant). It ranks with other 20th-century settings by Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Debussy and Caplet, and there is no worry about hard-to-listen modernistic styles. And Marcus Creed, with the professional Danish National Vocal Ensemble, make this recording a most beguiling combination of melody and harmony, performed here with technical near-perfection and a magnificent range of emotional colour. My previous favourite ‘The Secret Mass’ disc from Hyperion Records is now second place.

The following piece by the two four-part choirs is by Bohuslav Martinů. He was more prolific in his compositions than Frank. He too went to France, where he had been given a grant to go to Paris in 1923. Here he played violin in a orchestra, worked with Debussy and later wrote symphonies. He used his own styles (motoric, insistent rhythmics, patterns and natural folk-like melodiousness, plus writing from two books of Czech folk songs). All of this until the War; he spent the war years in New York, where he wrote his first five symphonies and had a hit with his opera ‘The Comedy on the Bridge’. Then he returned to Prague.

‘Four Songs of the Virgin Mary’, provides an interesting comparison of religious music between that of Martin and Martinů. In the 1920s, he wrote choral songs of which the ‘Four Songs of the Virgin Mary (1934) are one of the earliest. The songs are quite simple, but a delight. Martinů’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.

Frank Martin’s ‘Songs of Ariel’ is the only other ‘a cappella’ in his repertoire, written in 1950. ‘The Tempest’ is Shakespeare’s comedy, and a number of its lines have become quotes, for example “Where the bee sucks, there sucks I”. Ariel’s name means "Lion of God" and he is the magician Prospero’s server. There are two splendid solos, Lauritz Jakob Thomsen, baritone and Hanna-Maria Strand, alto who have high technical skills and wonderful voices; I particular enjoyed their clarity of diction. Writing of Ariel set off Martin to make an opera to explore 'The Tempest' more.

Finally, Martinů, while in the USA, set ‘Romance from the Dandelions’ to a text by his Miloslav Bures. These works have in common simplicity of melodic line and harmonic treatment, clear tonal grounding in each piece, structure of form and central motifs; they are also a testimony of the composer's love for his native country and the Vysocina [Highlands] region. The beginning of the ‘Dandelions’ is a fascinating hushed sound just like an low organ, and it interpolates with the story of a young soldier returning to his girl after war. The soprano solo (as the girl) is very touching. There is also a large (real) drum involved to indicate the approach of the military; no doubt bringing joy for the girl who has been waiting for 7 years.

‘OUR Recordings’ has produced a handsome digipak, highly polished and bearing the badge of ‘Vokal Ensemble’ (Danish National Vocal Ensemble). The booklet fits easily into its slot on the inside – pleasing, for slots are often difficult to replace the booklet on other digipaks. The first item in the booklet is a life-summary derived from www.frankmartin.org (translated from Dutch) and another on Bohuslav Martinů from Boosey & Hawkes. Each of the songs are discussed on the other pages by Jens Cornelius, Classical Music Journalist. The digipak booklet is mainly in English, except to the song texts of their native languages. Thankfully, the text size in the book is easily to read. 'OUR Recordings' book is also very complete about the method and staff for recording; I wish that other SACD makers would give more recording information.

Michael Emery was the recording and balance engineer and well-known Preben Iwan was Mastering. Recording was done in DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition, 542.8 kHz/24bit), on Pyramix DAW with DAD AX 24 and Merging Horus converter. Microphones: DPA 4006-TL, Neumann M149 and U89, Sennheiser MKH800 Twin. Any listener with some knowledge about recording from this equipment will expect an excellent result.

From my view, the 5.0 multi-channel experience captures the music as it lives and breathes in the reverberant space of a well-prepared studio. The spatial arrangement of the four choirs is captured with utter clarity, and the various voices of 18 professionals flow beautifully within the ambience, whatever their volume. The music of ‘The Secret Mass’ is indeed the prime of this record, yet the other contributions from Martin and Martinů on the SACD are unusual yet delightful.

I believe this an extremely valuable contribution to a rounded picture of these wonderful composers, in their double choruses recorded in DXD and SACD "hires" so the sound quality is beyond reproach. Essential listening for those interested in choral music and its history.

Copyright © 2018 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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