Three early works startlingly different from the jazz/neo-classical idiom that one associates with the younger Martinu. Two are song cycles, parallel to the many written by Mahler and his successors, as well as Maurice Ravel. Like Mahler, Martinu has succumbed to the magic spell of the Orient, though unlike Ravel in his song cycle, he opted for authentic Japanese and Chinese poems.
'Nipponari', the earlier work written just before the First World War, features soprano and small orchestra, and is scored with a delicacy that matches its exquisite and understated Japanese verse: Martinu's use of the harp is highly imaginative. The best of the songs is 'Old Age' where the text translates the blossoms of spring into the whitening of hair that comes with the onset of old age. Debussy is a clear influence, especially in the fifth song, while his whole tone procedures are imitated in the sixth song.
The second song-cycle, 'Magic Nights' is more densely scored, anticipating the richer textures of Martinu's closing years, and in contrast to the first cycle, employs a more operatic soprano.
The'Czech Rhapsody', most substantial of three works in length and sheer sonority, introduces another unfamilar Martinu, different even from later choral works like the Field Mass and the more intimate world of the Greek Passion. Written to celebrate the birth of the Czech nation in 1918, it affirms Martinu as a patriot, one whose identity was undimmed through many long years of exile, and which helped to nourish his creativity in the dark years of the Second World War. If at time its rhetoric seems rather overblown, the euphoric circumstances in which it was created (similar to the fall of Communism over seventy years later) make this forgivable.
In short, a window on new aspects of Martinu's compositional trajectory that will widen our appreciation of his gifts, and which make a fitting tribute on the 50th anniversary of ghis death. The performances are stunning, from the lyrical beauty of Peckova in the first piece, to choir and soloist (Ivan Kusjner) invoking Saint Wenceslas and Bohemia in the Rhapsody. A welcome introduction to the catalogue.