FRANK MARTIN: Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 – ARMAB Orch. – Breda Sacrament Choir/ Hineni String Orch./ Bastiaan Blomhert – CPO

by | Oct 26, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

A unique play reveals music of substance from Swiss composer Frank Martin.

FRANK MARTIN: Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 – ARMAB Orch. – Breda Sacrament Choir/ Hineni String Orch./ Basel Side Drums/ Bastiaan Blomhert – CPO 777 997-2, 66:08, ****:

B01HOU7GMI This CD is an example of how many amazing works of well-known composers come to light as a result of the collaboration between dedicated musicians and the relatives of deceased composers. In 2006 Maria Martin, wife of Frank Martin (1890-1974), suggested the publication of the suite of the music from her husband’s 1943 music to the theatrical performance of Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahr 1943. Enter conductor Bastiaan Blomhert, who deemed the complete work a masterpiece, and organized the resources to make this recording. In the middle of the horrors of World War II, Swiss mime artist Mariette von Meyenburg, asked her uncle Frank Martin to compose music for a theatrical performance that would portray death in a new way. The work’s purpose, was to see death “as a positive happenstance and …. to express in music that kind of peace with death,” as stated in the program notes for the performance. Martin liked this characterization, which comes from the Central European image of death as a compassionate and caring skeleton who dances with the person who is to die.

The result is eight musical scenes where death (symbolized by a professional dancer) meets personas who may or may not die. If they are to die, an angel (a boy’s choir and/or a string orchestra) escorts them into the Doors to Heaven. The music of the Dances of Death is performed by a jazz band, with the addition of Basel Side Drums, which linked the work to the town of Basel and its Fasnacht celebration and parade, the place and time of the original presentation in 1943.

As mentioned in my previous review of his Piano Trio, Martin is an accomplished choral and orchestral composer. Here, he brings the two together in a work that is full of orchestral creativity and vocal beauty that often rises to spiritual dimensions. Yet, because it was written to celebrate a community event, Martin effectively merges the mundane with the sublime. In “Death and the Mother with her and Child,” Martin uses a modified march in the brass to express gravity, but sends them to the “Stairs of Angels” with a touching “musique spirituelle” via a boy’s chorus.

A saxophone announces “Death and the Athlete,” echoed by other wind instruments, drums and bells over a strong march rhythm (sounding a bit like a Roman procession). Here the doors to heaven are accompanied by strings and the boy’s chorus. A soulful trombone and harpsichord sadly express “Death alone.” Dissonance and darkness (trombone, saxophone and low strings) and forte chords characterizes “Death and the Self-murderer.” In between many of the death scenarios are interludes of comic relief, including a “Foxtrot,” “Bouree,” and a wacky “Other Dance.” Several “Marches” by a solo drum lend gravitas to the event.

In “Death and the Beautiful Lady” a saxophone and guitar communicate sultry femininity that expands with brass and orchestral chordal flourishes. The ascent to Heaven is beautifully rendered by strings and a full chorus. The work ends with a leitmotif melody (drums) of the 16th-century soldier’s song which appears throughout the play.

The two orchestras and the Breda Sacrament Choir under Bastiaan Blomhert perform this work with fervor and authenticity. Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 is a unique combination of words and music that expresses death as a sacred and earthy transition. Frank Martin’s score is a major discovery for music lovers!

—Robert Moon

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