From 1940 until his death in 1959, having lost both his Czech homeland and his beloved composer-muse Vitezslava Kaprálová who died aged only 25, Bohuslav Martinů was preoccupied with thoughts of death and possible transfiguration. The Epic of Gilgamesh, shot through with the extra-strange spareness of his late style, took him back to a powerful Babylonian myth of c2000 BC to illuminate what he called ‘the fundamental human problem’.
We have been blessed with two recordings in Czech conducted by the late, great Jiří Bělohlávek – one from 1976, which I have on a Supraphon LP, and a 1995 BBC Symphony Orchestra concert performance, released as a cover disc by this magazine. Now for the first time The Epic of Gilgamesh is recorded in the original English that Martinů worked on from R Campbell Thompson’s seminal 1929 translation. There are very minor problems of pronunciation for the excellent Prague Philharmonic Choir, hardly any for the bass soloist, Jan Martiník, and the benefit of instant impact from Simon Callow’s minimal narration, soprano Lucy Crowe, tenor Andrew Staples and, best of all, Derek Welton in Gilgamesh’s questioning of his friend Enkidu’s spirit. Add to that love music, a brief fight, bleakness offset by brief transcendence in the central sequence, and the supreme mystery of the final dialogue, and all life is here in compressed mastery. Idiomatically conducted by Manfred Honeck and vividly recorded live in Prague’s Rudolfinum, this is the definitive performance of a 20th-century choral masterpiece.