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MARTIN: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke

CD Button Von der Damerau; Philharmonia Zurich, Luisi. No text or translation. PHR 1080

Recordings Martin Die Weise Cover 218
Critics Choice Button 1015 

EVEN THOUGH Rainer Maria Rilke didn’t see a need for them, the song catalogue would be poorer without the settings of his poetry by Hindemith, Peter Lieberson and Richard Strauss—and it would be poorer without this lesser-known work as well. Frank Martin’s name has stayed in the concert repertoire because of his brief but brilliantly economical Ballade for flute, but this almost hour-long piece is even more impressive. Rilke’s Way of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke stands on its own as a literary work; Martin has retained twenty-three of the original twenty-seven poems, and his version maintains their brevity and natural flow. This is no small achievement.

Wisely, he has not made free-standing entities of too many of them. There’s a larger form here, with a single and gigantic climax at the flowering of the tragically and senselessly short-lived cadet’s relationship with an aristocratic woman. There is one extended instrumental interlude, a colorful festal scene in the twelfth song. The final song is bleakly open-ended. Within these parameters there is room for a variety of orchestral colors, the instrumental ensemble playing mostly one-on-a-part, tied together by an unobtrusive underpinning of piano. The ensemble players (taken from the house band of Oper Zürich), led by Fabio Luisi, provide prophetic bell tones, an oracular trombone solo and extreme octave doublings; Martin cannily exploits the smallness of the ensemble. 

The soloist, Okka von der Damerau, is billed as a contralto, but her voice is magnificent in all registers, topped by an easy, Sieglinde-tinged openness in the soprano range. She resists the current, sad tendency of singers almost to speak in moments of drama rather than sing the notes, making a greater effect when she occasionally uses this type of expression. She has a great gift for narration, accentuating the way Martin’s text-setting often brings to mind Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Without doing anything too overt or moment-to-moment, she holds together the entire hour of music. Even Rilke might have acknowledged the success of this project.  —William R. Braun 

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