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Frank Martin is a little known composer, and his Weise von Liebe und Tod, for contralto and chamber orchestra, a little known work. Only a handful of recordings were ever made of it, this being one of them, and with one gone out of print. Any singer and orchestra expanding this too limited choice deserve our gratitude no matter what the precise artistic merits of their effort. I don't exaggerate in the least if I say I know not a single other work in 20th century music that I find so consistently and profoundly moving. The extraordinary sound world Martin conjures up, perched midway between serialism and tonality, is suffused with an intense sadness and sense of transience all its own. Its 12-tone elements ensure it sounds fresh and is unencumbered by anything formulaic or cliché; at the same time its firm tonal basis provides emotional anchor points that draw the listener into the heartrending story of the young ensign Christoph Rilke, who finds friendship, love and then death when he goes to war against the Turks. The text, nearly all of Rainer Maria Rilke's prose-poem, is of course a masterpiece in itself. Martin never compromises it with his notes, but naturally follows its every inflection, and plumbs its deeper meaning in an extraordinary feat of exegesis-through-music. The chamber ensemble is used with utmost delicacy, subtle dashes of colour enlivening the autumnal landscape, and a few well-placed climaxes piercing the heart.
One would expect every contralto to relish this piece, but few have actually tackled it. Lasting a full hour and encompassing 23 separate songs it is obviously extremely demanding, yet nobody would be able to tell from Christianne Stotijn's inspired rendition. Indeed, she here provides a perfectly viable alternative to the magnificent reading her one time teacher Jard van Nes recorded with the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam under Reinbert de Leeuw. The latter version, currently unavailable, takes maybe a few more risks resulting in stronger personal characterization, and few if any will ever be able to surpass Van Nes's depiction of the young soldier's ecstatic death, but Stotijn brings an intimacy and tenderness to the piece that is equally compelling. Her fresh, young voice and unforced singing are a delight throughout. She is ravishingly accompanied by the Winterthur ensemble, led by Jac van Steen, who are recorded with rather more warmth, presence and detail than De Leeuw's Amsterdam Sinfonietta. This is definitely my record of the year, and anyone with any interest in music that strikes the perfect balance between sheer beauty, deep meaning and intense emotion ought to hear it.