Martinu: The Epic Of Gilgamesh / Belohlávek, Prague So

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MARTIN? The Epic of Gilgamesh Ji?i B?lohlávek, cond; Marcela Machotková ( A Woman ); Ji?í Zahradni?ek ( Enkidu/Hunter ); Václav Zitek ( Gilgamesh ); Karel Pr?sa ( Narrator/Hunter’s Father/Spirit of Enkidu ); Otakar Brousek ( Speaker ); Prague SO SUPRAPHON 3918 (59:50 Text and Translation)

Martin?’s major vocal compositions, operas and oratorios, had a way of confounding expectations. The Epic of Gilgamesh , completed in 1955, was in many ways the exact opposite of a work composed around the same time, Mirandolina . While the latter was a typical Goldoni comedy of situation, the former was a work that considered timeless verities of the human condition: the nature of friendship and death. Recitative sufficed for Mirandolina , but Gilgamesh , with its mix of modally based orchestral themes, long-spanned rhythmic ostinatos, and phrases chanted by a bass soloist on a single note, sounds at times like a Martin? transmutation of Eastern Orthodox sacred services. It is a powerful work, deftly drawing upon three sections from the neo-Assyrian redaction of this sprawling and fragmentary religious cycle. From the expansive vision of creation, youth, and energy in the first section, “Gilgamesh,” it turns with restraint to the pathos of “The Death of Enkidu,” then to the alternately forceful and chill ritualistic summons and questioning of Enkidu’s spirit in “Invocation.”

I know of two currently available versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh . Both have been in circulation before. The one that features Zdenek Kosler leading the forces of the Slovak Philharmonic, now on Naxos 8.555138, originally appeared on Marco Polo back in the early 1990s. The one under review is a reissue from 1976. Of the two, Kosler is faster and, I find, a bit less atmospheric than B?lohlávek. There is sometimes a sense of impatience in Kosler’s reading, especially in the “Invocation” movement, as though he found some of the pages less successful than others. I would agree with this, but only if those pages are rushed. Taken in context as B?lohlávek does, the entire oratorio has an overwhelming effect. He is helped by the Prague SO, which is a fresher sounding, better-blended orchestra than the Slovak Philharmonic.

Among the singers, Ji?í Zahradní?ek’s dry, hard-sounding timbre makes him a less attractive Enkidu than Stefan Margita (Kosler). I have a slight preference for Marcela Machotková over Eva Depoltová (Kosler), given the narrow vibrato and refined dynamics of the former. Depoltová sings well, but with less attention to the words. Milan Karpisek (Kosler) offers a more riveting speaker than Otakar Brousek. Elsewhere, the performers are roughly even. Naxos balances its recording well, chorus supporting the orchestra, soloists a bit in front of both. Supraphon’s analog sound is also quite good, with the orchestra richer, and the speaker unfortunately superimposed upon the proceedings in a fashion that recalls voice-overs. Supraphon’s resonance seems to me more appropriate for this piece than that of Naxos, which dulls the musical edge slightly through too large a hall sound.

In short, the choice is yours. Both versions are good, though I’d give the nod to the more thoughtful B?lohlávek.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SU3918-2

  • UPC: 099925391829

  • Label: Supraphon

  • Composer: Bohuslav Martinů

  • Conductor: Jirí Belohlávek

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Prague Philharmonic Chorus, Prague Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Jirí Zahradnícek, Karel Prusa, Marcela Machotkova, Otakar Brousek, Václav Zitek