, February 2008
The intrepid Giorgio Koukl has now reached volume four in his estimable and important series devoted to the solo piano works. He fuses acute appreciation of dance and rhythmic patterns with questions of sonority. And he is at all times conscious of the scale of things. This is important given that he now turns to a number of works that have never been recorded before – there are nine such in this disc.
The programme is cleverly constructed. Compositional dates range from 1913 to 1957 – pretty much the entire span of his active life – and allow us to see more clearly the sheer range of influences and preoccupations, from pre-Parisian jeux d’esprit to the late in memoriam piece for Vítězslava Kaprálová.
The recital begins with Seven Czech Dances "Borova" H 195 – one of the better-known works. Martinů collectors will long have leaned on the Supraphon set recorded by Emil Leichner. And though other players have ventured into the discographical waters – there’s a series on Tudor for instance - it’s to Leichner that adherents have generally looked in this repertoire; rightly so, as he’s an impressive guide. There’s little between Koukl and Leichner in these seven dances except perhaps in No.7 where Leichner is the quicker and perhaps the more biting. The recording qualities vary with Koukl’s sounding a touch harder and therefore both more incisive and less intimate.
Les ritournelles H 227 sees Koukl quicker than Leichner in all movements and there are correspondingly big differences in characterisation throughout. Koukl is not inclined to reprise Leichner’s rather more seigniorial approach – and the former’s playing is stylish, committed and energetic. Both men bring a remarkably different sound world in their disparate approaches to one of the composer’s most exciting sets though neither is as fast as Firkušný in his RCA traversal [74321 886822 – an all-Martinů two CD set which includes concerto performances]. No one can really match Firkušný’s tonal qualities and sheer vitality either.
The Dumka for Piano No 2 “Elegie” H 250 is a piece of substance and the Adagio was written for Vítězslava Kaprálová and her father in 1957, towards the end of the composer’s life. It sounds strangely Beethovenian but not overtly lachrymose – there’s a strong stoic vein running through it, Martinů binding its rhetoric to ages past. Other pieces, especially the nine previously unrecorded ones, are of slighter import but exciting for the Completist. Some last for less than a minute. Pro tanec (For Dancing) has a touch of Ježek about it but Rujana is more intriguing. It’s a seascape – very unusually for the composer - but its writing is too rugged for impressionism; maybe pictorialism would fit the stylistic bill better. Still – a valuable restoration. The Prelude No.2 in F minor bears its Chopinesque imprint strongly; there are a couple of bizarrely named titles as well that together last less than two minutes - Instructive Duo for the Nervous and Procession of the Cats on Solstice Night. These are both School of Paris inspirations.
So Koukl has cast his net wisely and well, mixing established classics of Martinů’s piano canon with works that none but a manuscript editor would have heard. The result is that volume four proves indispensable to the Martinů completist. Don’t expect revelations from the previously unrecorded pieces but they do round out his enthusiasms and preoccupations very nicely. There is, one hopes, still more to come from this series, which will make it an important contribution to Martinů studies on disc for years to come.
And a further perspective from Bob Briggs—
This disk is simply delightful. Most of the pieces are in various dance forms, and at times there’s the naughty tinge of jazz, but, perhaps surprisingly, there’s more than sufficient variety within the programme to keep the attention.
The works cover the whole forty-plus years of Martinů’s composing career, from the sea fantasy, Ruyana, to the Adagio in memoriam, commemorating Vaclav Kapril and his daughter Vítězslava Kaprálová, who died tragically young, both composers. Vítězslava was also Martinů’s student and lover. It has been reported that the manuscript score of Martinů’s 5th String Quartet was littered with risqué references to this relationship but these were excised, after the composers’ death, due to the politics of the Czechoslovakian state of the time.
There are no masterpieces here, just very enjoyable miniatures, mostly written in Martinů’s clearly defined neo-classical style. The scholarship is of a high degree, ferreting out even the most miniature of works and presenting them for us.
I am sure that most of these pieces were dashed off without a thought for performance: Martinů just felt the need to express himself in a certain way at a certain time. What they don’t give you is the impression that here is one of the major symphonists of the 20th century, but they do show him in an agreeably different light.
Over the past few months I have had the very great pleasure of welcoming a number of Naxos’s new releases and I am quickly running out of superlatives for this company. They never seem to put a foot wrong.