WORKS: Mass for Double Choir; Songs of Ariel; Ode à la musique; Cantate pour le 1er Août; Chansons
PERFORMER: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CATALOGUE NO: 14672 DDD
On the strength of his most widely performed works such as the neo-classical Petite symphonie concertante, one might imagine the music of Swiss composer Frank Martin to be all about elegance and refinement, with emotional involvement kept very much in check. Yet such an impression could hardly be gleaned from listening to any one of these three discs, for each offers not only a marvellous demonstration of Martin’s gifts as a composer of vocal music, but also reminds us of a capacity he shared with Britten for setting texts in various languages with equal mastery and insight.
Probably the most challenging works are contained on the Chandos disc, which couples the dark and tormented Everyman Monologues, composed during the turbulent years of World War II, with the late and more austere Maria Triptych for the unusual combination of soprano, violin solo and orchestra. The performances maintain the high standards of earlier discs in Bamert’s indispensable Martin series. In particular, the baritone David Wilson-Johnson deserves special praise for his impassioned singing, which rivals that of Fischer-Dieskau in the Monologues and the three tantalisingly brief fragments from the opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The two other discs pay homage to the same play by featuring the highly evocative and technically demanding Songs for Ariel for unaccompanied choir. Both performances have positive virtues, but The Sixteen surpass their rivals in terms of clarity of diction and range of colour. Honours are more evenly divided in the early Mass for Double Choir, with the Norddeutscher Figuralchor producing a wonderfully homogenous sound in contrast to The Sixteen’s more ascetic timbre. But final choice is most likely to favour the Collins disc for its generous duration and its inclusion of some fascinating rarities. Erik Levi