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I recently heard a 100-minute recording of Frank Martin’s
(1890-1974) “Le Vin Herbé” (The Magic Brew), which he
composed between 1938 and 1941. It received its first
complete performance during 1942. The work is based
upon the “Tristan” legend originating in the 12th Century.
Martin’s libretto is based upon a French version of the story
by scholar Joseph Bédier (1864-1938). Martin chose the
central chapter of Bédier’s version for this work. Although a
comparison is inevitable, fans of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan
und Isolde” should attempt to purge that version from their
minds while listening to Martin’s opera-oratorio.

The “Le Vin Herbé” score is interesting, with seven string
parts and piano, as well as 12 solo singers, some of which
double as chorus. On this recording, Laura Danehower Whyte
sings the role of “Isolde,” “Tristan” is sung by Steven Tharp
and the role of “King Mark” is sung by Robert Osborne. These
singers do not participate in the choir; however, the
remaining soloists also sing choral parts and are joined by
other choral singers. In the interest of maintaining a certain
freshness, I have no problem with this practice on a
studio recording, and conductor Mark Shapiro explains his
reasoning for this use of voices on the “Conductor’s Note” page
of the accompanying booklet.

Actually, I wish that they had only used the 12 soloists for all of the
vocal requirements. Instead, the choral forces were increased
to a total of 34 singers. I believe that a smaller vocal
contingent would have achieved a better balance with the
aforementioned eight-piece instrumental ensemble. Nevertheless,
the “I Cantori di New York” chamber choir sounded great, and
the soloists also delivered fine performances.

As far as the musical language of this piece was concerned,
Martin utilized the 12-tone technique popularized by Arnold
Schönberg and combined it with his own personal use of
chromaticism, thereby forging a unique, characteristic style.
To my ears, Martin’s combination of these techniques, while
not renouncing tonality, resulted in a strikingly original sound,
and “Le Vin Herbé” established his reputation as a major
composer. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with the works by Frank
Martin, this Newport Classic recording from 2000 would be
a good way to begin learning about him. Check it out.

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