The Song of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke is one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s most popular works. It tells the story of the “hero”, supposedly related to Rainer Maria (a conceit), who fought in the 17th century wars against the Hussars. His military career is traced, along with experiences of love and life, and then followed by his early death in battle. Evidently there were so many musical settings of this piece that Rainer had difficultly keeping track of them all—and disapproved of virtually everything he heard.
He might have thought differently had he ever heard this setting by Swiss composer Frank Martin. In 1942, Martin became enamored of the vivid and colorful language of the poem, though he had many qualms about setting a language he was unfamiliar with, and the epic nature of the poem (even though it was divided into many smaller scenes). In the end, the “magic” of the poem won him over, and he created a setting of 23 numbers lasting nearly an hour long (Viktor Ullmann created another popular setting for speaker and piano, much shorter than this). Anyone familiar with Martin’s idiom knows to never know exactly the style of music that will be encountered, for Martin’s love-hate relationship with twelve-tone technique, something he flirted with nearly all his life, lends itself to a vast array of tonal complexity and tonality in general. In this case he uses a modified tone row for the melodic portions of the score, while employing standard non-twelve-tone harmonies of a sort that reminds me of Pelleas et Melisande. Frank and Faure are never far in the background, and Wagner hovers everywhere, more as an aside than a direct influence. But the music is very beautiful, surely one of the finest song cycles of the modern age.
It has had few recordings, and that comes as no surprise, for the contralto part is taxing in the extreme, a full hour of non-stop singing, and not many have been willing to try it. The one worthy entry in the catalogue is the 1994 recording with Marijana Lipovsek (Orfeo), still a standard setter, and a brilliant opening salvo for the then young soprano. I cannot say that Christianne Stotijn tops her on this recording, but she certainly gives her a run for the money, and the addition of 5.1 surround sound really expands this music and provides a delicious sonic wash, letting the wonderful colors of Martin’s music have full impact. The Winterthur orchestra plays as if this music was from the cradle, and conductor Steen measures the pace with graceful dignity. Very highly recommended, and the half star is only because neither texts nor translations were included in the booklet, inexcusable for a production like this.
— Steven Ritter