Martinu and Martin together in The Secret Mass

There’s only one letter difference between the names Martin and Martinu. Their music isn’t as closely related, but they do share some similarities. Swiss Frank Martin and Czech Bohuslav Martinu were both born in 1890 and were musical contemporaries.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble performs mostly a capella works by these two men, highlighting both the similarities and the differences.

The album opens with Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. Although composed in 1926, Martin did not permit performances until 1963. It was a deeply personal religious statement by Martin, one he felt should “remain hidden from public opinion.” Hence the title “Secret Mass.”

Martin was inspired to compose after hearing a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The choral writing in this work shows that influence, albeit with more modern harmonies. Martin effectively uses the double choirs to great effect. Sometimes one echoes the other, sometimes they come together, and sometimes they move off in different directions. It’s a beautiful work that I’m glad is no longer secret.

Martin’s 1950 Songs of Ariel shows traces of the dodecaphonic system. With Martin, it’s more of an adaptation than adoption. There’s clear melodic movement, and cadences, while avoiding traditional harmony, still have a sense of completeness and inevitability.

As with Martin, the choir includes an early and late choral work by Martinu.

Martinu’s works invariably have a strong rhythmic pulse and distinctive syncopations. Those syncopations are based on Czech speech patterns. His “Four Songs of the Virgin Mary” (1932) and “Romance from the Dandelions” (1957) are set in Czech.

The blending of language and rhythm gives these work a naturalistic sound, almost as if the choir was talking lyrically instead of singing. Martinu’s harmonic language is loosely tonal and remained consistent throughout his career. These two Martinu works share many similarities despite being written twenty years apart.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble performs with a smooth ensemble blend. The choir is well-recorded. There’s no harshness in the sopranos’ upper register, and the basses sing with clarity and precision.

This is an SACD release. If you purchase the digital downloads, select the highest resolution offered. It’s the only way you can fully appreciate the nuanced phrasing of the choir and the wonderfully rich textures of their blended voices.

The Secret Mass: Choral Works by Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinu
Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Marcus Creed, conductor
OUR Recordings 6.220671
SACD Release

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