, December 2009
These two volumes of the complete solo piano music of Bohuslav Martinu announce the completion of an outstanding undertaking. The series was originally intended to run to only four discs but has since trawled further outwards. The catch means it is now, quite clearly, the most extensive and exhaustive collection of the works for solo piano ever recorded.
Volume six [8.572024] starts with the 1931 Esquisses H203. They’re written in pungent neo-classical form, and hints of chinoiserie, Paris-style, haunt the second of the six, as well as Ragtime. Martinu, though, always remained far more allusive stylistically than fellow Czech Schulhoff in this regard. Impressionist hues haunt the Fourth whilst I’m sure I hear a larky Volga Boatmen embedded in the Ragtime melos of No. 5—plenty of sinewy articulation here.
Jeux was also written in 1931 and is a locus classicus of Martinu cross-rhythms. I suggest you start with No.3 of the four of Book I, which is both fluent and fluid but also sports a characteristically saturnine neo-classical drive. The second book is no less fine for all that: in some ways it’s more piquant still, with a warm and malleable quality to the Andante [No.3] and a martial tune laced with Prokofiev-like moments [No. 6]. We go right back to 1917 for Tri lyrické skladby (Three Lyric Pieces). These take in a Mussorgsky Pictures feel in the first of the three. The second starts like an etude, diverts to popular chinoiserie, then noodles off in the direction of the nineteenth century drawing room. Weird mélange.
There are pieces you probably have not come across even in literature devoted to the composer. The Black Bottom is one. It dates from 1927 and is a delightful minute’s worth of your time…Vecer na pobreží (Evening at the Shore) dates from 1921 and will intrigue admirers of the composer. In three brief movements he creates an intimate impressionistic tableau, somewhat reliant on Griffes possibly, where, in the central panel, the left hand waves lap into the right hand melody line delightfully and where the storm in the finale gently eases away. This may seem atypical but it shows the ease with which he assimilated French models and distilled them potently. The disc ends with the grand bell peals of Písen beze slov, the valedictory Nocturne and the plangent Chanson triste in D minor.
Volume seven [8.572025] carries on the excellent work into ever more obscure areas of the composer’s repertoire. There were six world premiere performances in volume six and there are ten here—almost everything in fact.
Pohádka o Zlatovlásce (A Fairy-Tale of Goldilocks) is the earliest thing here, dating from 1910 and it sports youthful infatuations; there are Elektra quotations and swirling dance motifs, as well as hints of Suk. The second of the four movements is steeped in even older models—Dvořák, maybe a hint or two even of Smetana dances. The third panel is melancholic, with fulsome chording, and the final movement has some insinuating, folkloric plangency. Z pohádek Andersenovych (From Andersen’s Fairy-Tales) followed two years later but is less interesting in terms of influence and musical intention. Pertly conversational, sturdy and pleasingly lulling though it may be in part it almost entirely lacks distinctive features.
There then follows a sequence of small-scale works. Some are trinkets, whilst others are rather more evocative of a time and place. The Ballada shows his special brand of avuncular chordal drama: La Danse is a Stravinskian bauble: Honegger haunts the railroad rhythms of Le train hanté: then we have the strikingly noble carillon of Prélude. One thing Czechs could do with ease was a generic foxtrot of which Foxtrot narosený na ružku is a nice example. These are all good to have for the completist but Jaro (The Spring) is far, far more important than the surrounding trinkets. Amazing it’s never been recorded before. Written in 1921 it’s composed in the footsteps of Suk’s piano pieces but is spiced with echoes of French impressionism. It’s a most convincing piece, not quite three minutes in length, but highly representative of what influenced him in the early 1920s and where he was to go later in the decade. Make a beeline for this work.
So Koukl’s pilgrimage has come to its end. He has been a most worthy guide, and now takes his place at the top table of Martinu performers on record. At budget price he has no peers. As a complete cycle this set has no rivals. Individual performances from the likes of Firkušný, Leichner and others may be more arresting in isolation but the overarching reach of Koukl proves dominant and permanent.