When pressed on what to call his 1955 work The Epic of Gilgamesh, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů said, “It is not an oratorio, nor a cantata, it is simply an epic.” By any name it remains a powerful piece, particularly in the hands of the Czech Philharmonic, which assembled an international cast of soloists and enlisted the countryʼs best choral ensemble to deliver a riveting performance of cosmic proportions.

Martinů was normally a quick worker when he had an idea, but for a variety of reasons it took 15 years for this one to come to fruition. He first became intrigued with the source material, an ancient Babylonian text considered one of the worldʼs oldest literary works, in 1940. By the time he sat down to set parts of it to music, he had been in almost continuous exile since fleeing the Nazi invasion of France and then the communist occupation of his homeland. In that context, Gilgameshʼs search for the secrets of life and death held both contemporary relevancy and deep personal meaning for him.

Using the critical edition of the score recently compiled and published by the Bohuslav Martinů Institute in Prague, conductor Manfred Honeck opened with a whisper of strings that quickly exploded into orchestral bedlam and choral textures segueing from ethereal to electric. This set the stage for the first singer, Czech bass Jan Martiník, to introduce the title character in ominous tones fit for a god. None of the four singers get much time in Gilgamesh, with the chorus carrying the lionʼs share of the vocals. The bass gets to open and close, and Martiník made the most of the opportunity with a clear, commanding delivery that was particularly effective in the finale, which hovers between redemption and despair.

With the chorus and a speaker providing a narrative thread, the other singers give voice to Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, who dies and is then resurrected for a gripping report on the afterlife. Following it all can be confusing, as the singers sometimes switch roles, and the text is in an archaic form of Elizabethan English (as translated by British archaeologist R. Campbell Thompson). Singing mostly Enkidu, British tenor Andrew Staples sounded a bit thin. Australian baritone Derek Welton was stronger as Gilgamesh, matching the orchestraʼs often overpowering volume. British soprano Lucy Crowe brought a radiance to her occasional entreaties, her voice rising from the orchestral tumult to offer an inviting bridge between the material and spiritual worlds. 

The dramatic, angst-ridden tone and content of Gilgamesh were a good fit for narrator Simon Callow, the veteran British actor, director and writer. He packed a lot of tension and character into his few lines, biting off some of them perhaps too ferociously. Still, the most compelling vocal performance was by the Prague Philharmonic Choir, which showed impressive facility in everything from snatches of polyphony to roaring cascades of sound that poured from the stage like a sonic tidal wave. The choral passages call for sharp turns of tone and texture, which the choir took to another level with a vibrant, dynamic voice that was like an additional character onstage.

Honeck did a masterful job pulling together all the disparate elements, and his familiarity with the Czech Philharmonic (he was the orchestraʼs principal guest conductor for six years) showed in his ability to coax 20th-century sounds out of a deeply classical ensemble. Gilgamesh is a tonal work but it brims with modern touches – industrial rhythms, anxious strings, blaring horns – that Honeck used as bright colors in a broad palette. In a piece that sometimes seems on the verge of collapsing under its own weight, the playing was consistently clean and crisp, and in the final exchange between Martiník and Welton, the orchestra positively shimmered behind the singers.

The evening opened with a less satisfying performance of Beethovenʼs Piano concerto no. 3 in C minor with Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi at the keyboard. A facile player with nearly flawless technique, Piemontesi sounded a bit wooden until the cadenza late in the first movement opened up his playing and style. Over the remainder of the piece he proved to be technically dazzling, but refined in a way that seemed bloodless paired with the lush, romantic sound of the orchestra. It was an interesting study in contrasts that never quite cohered into a seamless whole.

Even at maximum intensity, the concerto would have paled in the wake of Gilgamesh. More than 4,000 years after the story was first told, and a half-century since Martinů set it to music, it remains timeless, penetrating and irresistible.