Having received the prestigious Editor’s Choice accolade from Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine, and having received a nomination for the BBC Music Magazine Awards has made the complete recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s four Vysočina chamber cantatas an international event. The Opening of the Springs, The Legend of the Smoke from Potato Tops, Romance of the Dandelions and Mikeš of the Mountains, all based on Miloslav Bureš’s poems, form a loose cycle, evoking memories of childhood and representing for the exiled composer a connection with his homeland. The Prague Philharmonic Choir and its conductor Lukáš Vasilek, who have made the album, are scheduled to perform the cantatas on 12 February in Saint Petersburg. During their tour of Russia, they will also co-perform Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.

The Prague Philharmonic Choir visited Moscow along with the Czech Philharmonic some 30 years ago. Is Russia today – in general – a common destination for independent tours?

The choir will be visiting Russia on their own for the very first time. It is, of course, an artistic challenge – we are going to export Czech music, in an utterly original sample. So we appreciate having been afforded such an opportunity. And we are curious about the local audience, who are a great unknown for us.

Choral singing in Russia has a tradition different to that in our country, with the Orthodox Church certainly playing a crucial role in this respect. The local audience may well be curious about you.

Yes, Russian choruses do sing in a different manner. We will present a different sound and a different repertoire, totally unknown to the local audiences. While Martinů’s music is quite familiar in Central Europe, as well as in the UK, it has not been part of the regular repertoire in Russia. When the composer’s name is mentioned, the Russians rather recollect his symphonic works or operas, not these cantatas.

Given their lyrics and specific poetics, they are not so frequently performed abroad…

The Netherlands Chamber Choir, a top-notch, splendid ensemble, have made an album of Bohuslav Martinů’s music, featuring his madrigals and other pieces, including the Romance of the Dandelions. They sing it wonderfully, yet it is clearly audible that Czech is true hell for them, as it is for foreign choirs in general. When the words are mispronounced by a soloist, it is a single error. But when Czech is concurrently deformed by six sopranos, each of them in a different way…

You have not regularly performed The Opening of the Springs abroad.

That is true, with a few exceptions, one of them being years ago concerts in France, with the conductor Jaroslav Brych. What’s more, it is rather costly. The cantatas employ a large number of soloists and instrumentalists, who will come with us to Russia. Only the role of the narrator will be undertaken by a Russian actor – as a forthcoming gesture to the local audience. Just as in other similar cases, singing will be done in the original language, whereas the narration will be delivered in translation.

Will you give your concert at the renowned Mariinsky Theatre?

As guests within the Mariinsky Theatre concert cycle, we will appear at the modern hall next to the historical building.

Have they themselves selected you?

Half-and-half. We will go there owing to the gigantic efforts of the manager Radim Dolanský, who had actually wrestled the tour for us.

On Saturday, you will perform Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass along with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Is the piece better known in Russia than Martinů’s cantatas?

The Glagolitic Mass reputedly has not been performed in Russia for a very long time. Yet the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra will undoubtedly give a stellar account.

From their viewpoint, you will be the concert’s protagonists and participants alike.

Yes. I would, however, like to refer to the concert’s programme. Whereas in the Czech Republic and in Western Europe the Glagolitic Mass has been the climax of concerts, in Saint Petersburg they had placed it before the intermission, followed by Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, evidently with the aim to motivate the audience. But I am above all curious about the sonic proportion. Our choir does not produce a small sound, yet we have continuously striven for a cultivated singing, with its basic parameter being beauty, not vehemence. On the other hand, the tendency in Russia has been to play and sing everything more forcibly than we have been doing. The piano is not so soft and the forte is far bolder. So we will see how it will turn out.

In the end, on 15 February, you and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra will perform Dvořák’s Stabat Mater in Moscow. Is the cantata better known than the other works?

Yes, a little bit. The conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev is really fond of Dvořák’s music, and I think he has even made a recording of Stabat Mater. In the case of this concert, however, the intermission will atypically occur in the middle of it, after the fifth movement. We don’t like such things, yet there’s nothing we can do about it. The stage in Moscow is not built for a large orchestra and chorus, so they will be quite cramped, and the singers will not be able to sit down once throughout the very long cantata. So such an arrangement actually necessitated out of concerns for the performers – to prevent the concert being affected by an unbreathable atmosphere.

When the Vysočina cantatas recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Choir on Supraphon are added the last year’s CD with Martinů’s oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh, made with the Czech Philharmonic and Manfred Honeck, which has received several international awards, and the new Supraphon album of madrigals, as performed by your Martinů Voices, you have recently devoted to Bohuslav Martinů’s music quite intensely.

I like his music, that is why I have paid so much attention to it. Yet we have said everything we could have said in this regard. We may return to Martinů one day, but taking a break from his music will certainly be reasonable.

You are known to be a perfectionist. Did you and the others at the studio have many heated exchanges?

To put it mildly! But everyone was ready to face it. There was always something to be trimmed, as I did not want to let it go. We discussed some aspects until the very last day, until the master tape had to be delivered. We worked with a superb team, people we are familiar with. The recording director Milan Puklický and I agree as regards the recording’s conception – what is more, I know I can trust him, and he knows that sometimes I have great or unexpected requirements, but he is aware that my aim is a good outcome. And that I do give in when I am in the wrong… I also feel obliged to mention the outstanding work done by the two recording engineers – Aleš Dvořák, in the case of the cantatas, and Jakub Hadraba, with the madrigals.

When were the exchanges more heated – for the cantatas, or for the madrigals?

Everything Martinů wrote for chorus is rather tricky, requiring great efforts so as to make it sound nice. If a recording is to be listenable repeatedly, it entails alchemy to make it all interlock. The composer himself is often to blame for the sonic trickiness, not everything he wrote is vocally ideal. I personally am not overly fond of live recordings of choral music. The choir is too vivid a mass for it to be possible to grasp easily on every occasion, hence it is more accidental than not for a live recording to turn out well. And also – we are somewhat overshadowed by the choirs to the west and north of us, choirs that have set an incredibly high standard, and whose impeccable recordings have motivated us to give better performances. Their perfection is a matter of course. The time has shifted us and we must be able to compete.

Which choirs do you have in mind?

The German radio choirs in Berlin and Munich. Then the choirs from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, in particular – they are absolutely unrivalled when it comes to their repertoire, even though less so in performing Bach and Brahms, for instance. On all accounts, it is almost depressing to see how high the standard of the best choirs is. And we must continue to strive to attain it.

What will you be recording after Martinů?

I have vowed not to ever make another recording… Well, I know, it was a hysterical reaction, and in the fullness of time I will change my mind. My profession will force me to do so. I know what I may like to record, what would make me feel good. I do have ideas, yet cannot reveal them for now. Anyway, I am currently not ready to plunge into a new recording.

Petr Veber
Harmonie (Czech Republic), February 2018
translation: Hilda Hearne