Frank Martin's musical language was remarkably versatile, yet it retained something of a personal touch across the stylistic range, from late-romanticism through neo-classicism, mild modernism, and a very personal take on a twelve-tone technique. Die Weise von Lieve und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke is an ambitious song-cycle for contralto and orchestra based, obviously, on the epic poem by Rilke, and was originally intended as a song-cycle with piano accompaniment. Rilke's tale is itself rather remarkable, and one of the primary drawbacks of the present release is that, although we get the full texts, there is no translation - not even an English synopsis.
I hope that fact doesn't deter too many potential listeners, however, for even as a purely musical experience this is a deeply compelling affair; the music is wonderful, with a marvelous range of colors and textures, strange atmospheres, and gripping ideas. If you can follow the text, however, it would admittedly add another layer. Rilke's weird tale is captivating with its contrasts between simple enjoyments and rewards and dark angst and malice always lurking threateningly in the shadows, and Martin's music fit the story and its images superbly and magically.
The song-cycle consists of 23 richly contrasted and vivid images, to which Martin's musical language provides a perfect fit. I suppose the music notionally employs twelve-tone techniques, but Martin's idiosyncratic take on it means that the music sounds more like an impressionistically tinted version of late-romanticism - though a deeply original version. There are plenty of tonal centers and even tonal thematic material serving as a sort of foundation for the composer's inventive and imaginative colorations and figures, with a few central motifs that occur throughout. The scoring is in fact relatively economic (a small wind section, strings, harp, celesta, percussion, and piano), but the range of colors that Martin can conjure up with his resources almost beggars belief.
As for the performances, Christianne Stotijn deserves nothing but praise. Her contralto is rich and supple; she seems unfazed by the notorious technical challenges, and her characterizations are equally convincing throughout with a wide expressive range able to capture all of Martin's subtle moods and atmospheres. The Winterthur Music College Orchestra does not disappoint either - a few rough edges and some shaky textures apart, they provide very compelling and resourceful performances, and MDG's sound quality is splendid. I have heard no alternative version of this work, but it is definitely music that deserves wide circulation; the performances at hand fortunately do it justice. Strongly recommended.