About this Recording
8.570215 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 4 (Koukl)
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Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Complete Piano Music • 4

 

Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, a small Bohemian town about eighty kilometres north of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. His composing began precociously at the age of ten, after beginning his study of the violin two years earlier. Although he attended the Prague Conservatory, he failed to complete his courses. While a young man, he worked as an orchestral violinist in Prague before moving to Paris in 1923 in order to study with Albert Roussel. He moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1940s to escape the spreading Nazi occupation of Europe. Martinů was a prolific composer. He wrote over four hundred pieces of music, some eighty of which were for the piano. Even though they constitute such a large portion of his work, the reputation of his works for solo piano has typically been overshadowed by that of his orchestral and chamber music.

This fourth and final CD in the series represents Martinů's remaining output for solo piano not covered in the three previous discs, excepting sketches or juvenilia of trivial import and works for which the music has been lost to history. Giorgio Koukl presented the première of one of the works, Rujana, in the studios of RSI (Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana) specifically for this recording. Seven other works have also been recorded for the first time on this disc. Even now, manuscripts of previously unknown or lost works by Martinů continue to be discovered, implying that any attempt at an anthology of "complete works" will be open to the possibility of future amendment.

Some nine kilometres west of Polička is the village of Borová (a common name for settlements in the Czech Republic). Rather than a simple village, Borová is a cluster of settlements with about a thousand inhabitants, located in a gentle valley on the Černý Potok (Black Creek), at the edge of a forest. It was there in 1905 that young Martinů gave his first public recital in a local tavern, U Dostálů. This is the scene which inspired the set of seven Czech dances titled Borová, H. 195. Written in Paris and Polička in 1930, all are in 2/4 metre and each is subtitled Polka.

Of the solo piano works to which Martinů gave the title Prelude, in addition to the Eight Preludes featured on the first disc of this series, he wrote a handful more which are stand-alone works. The two "numbered" preludes on this disc, Prelude No. 1 'on the theme of the Marseillaise', H. 85,and Prelude No. 2 in F minor, H. 86, were both written early in Martinů's career, in 1913, in the midst of work on his initial group of Loutky (Book III) and prior to the First World War. The other included here, an unnumbered Prelude, H. 140,was written in 1924, not long after Martinů had arrived in Paris. For all three, this disc offers the première recordings.

The sea fantasy Rujana, H. 100, derives its title from the Slavic name for Rügen, Germany's largest island, located on the Baltic Sea. The Rujanes, who settled on the island in the seventh century, were western Slavic peoples. Beginning in 1815, when it became part of the Kingdom of Prussia, bathing resorts were established, and Rügen became the most famous holiday destination of Germany until World War II. Following German reunification in 1990, it regained that status. The island's extensive chalk cliffs were portrayed in the famous painting Kreidefelsen auf Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Giorgio Koukl presented the world-première performance of Rujana in the RSI studios, in preparation for this première recording.

The actual inspiration for Martinů's Průvod koček v noci slunovratu (Procession of the Cats on Solstice Night), H. 122, is not known, but based upon midsummer traditions of folklore, one could conjure an image of witches (transformed into cats) on their way to a convocation of magical powers. Written in 1919, it precedes Martinů's move to Paris and his "jazz period", and is the earliest of Martinů's piano works to show influences of jazz.

After moving to Paris in October 1923, Martinů lived as a freelance composer, often returning to Polička in the summer months. Incidental works written during the remainder of the 1920s include the Scherzo, H. 138bis, Pro tanec (For Dancing), H. 158, the humorously titled solo Instruktivní duo pro nervózní (Instructive Duo for the Nervous), H. 145, Four Movements, H. 170, and a work which Martinů left untitled, H. 141.

Among these, a notable nod to modern life is the miniature Par T.S.F., H. 173biswritten in 1929. 'T.S.F.' was the common abbreviation for Télégraphie sans fil, the French term for radio broadcasting. Hence the common English title, 'On Radio Waves'. The first radio stations in France that broadcast to a public audience were established in 1922, the year before Martinů arrived in Paris, and it quickly became a phenomenon of popular culture. The technical ability to make radio so widespread was made possible by the development of reliable vacuum tubes ("thermionic valves"). It also made possible early electronic musical instruments such as the Theremin (1920) and the ondes Martenot (1928), both of which create audible sounds by heterodyning a pair of high-frequency radio waves. Martinů later wrote music for both of these instruments, as well as opera for radio broadcast.

With Les ritournelles, H. 227, of 1932, we hear Martinů in his mature Parisian phase, where a new neoclassical sense of form and balance comes to the fore. The six-movement work was brought to fame by his friend Rudolf Firkušný, the pianist whose name became most strongly associated with interpretations of Martinů's piano works up until his death in 1994.

The two Lístek do památníku (literally 'note in a scrapbook,' though a more familiar translation would be 'album leaf') are also from this era (1932 and 1935), and are examples of the many brief, incidental compositions which make up a large proportion of Martinů's piano music. Skladba pro malé Evy (Piece for the Little Evas), H. 242, of 1935 is another example of an album leaf.

Dumka was one of the narrative forms of Slavic folk ballad which composers such as Antonín Dvořák appropriated for classical compositions, evolving it into a type of music with sudden emotional changes ranging from the melancholic to the exuberant, involving thoughts about memories. Of the three dumky on this disc, Dumka No. 1 'Contemplation', H. 249, and Dumka No. 2 'Elégie', H. 250, are from 1936, while Martinů was still in Paris, but the Dumka No. 3, H. 285bis, of 1941 was a product of Martinů's necessary emigration to the United States. The music of an early, unnumbered Dumka, H. 4, from 1909 has been lost.

Four other works included here come from Martinů's American era, all written in New York: Mazurka, 'Homage to Paderewski', H. 284, in 1941, Bagatelle 'Morceau facile', H. 323, and Barcarolle, H. 326, in 1949, and Improvisation, H. 333, in 1951.

In 1952, Martinů was granted American citizenship, but in May 1956 he left his adopted country for the last time.

Martinů composed his Adagio 'In memoriam', H. 362,in Rome during March 1957. Its dedication is in memory of Václav Kaprál and Vitězslava Kaprálová. Václav Kaprál (1889-1947) was a famous Czech pianist, composer and music critic; his daughter Vitězslava ("Vitulka") was herself a gifted young composer and conductor, who became both Martinů's student and lover. She died in 1940, age 25, allegedly of miliary tuberculosis, only two months after her marriage to the writer Jiří Mucha, and only six days after Martinů left Paris to emigrate to the United States. It was Martinů's final musical statement for solo piano.

Although Martinů longed for his homeland and his beloved Polička, he was never able to return, ultimately settling in Switzerland, where he died in 1959.

Mark Gresham

 


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