About this Recording
8.572024 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 6 (Koukl)
English  German 

Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Complete Piano Music • 6


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, two years after he began study of the violin. 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.

As was suggested in the notes for Volume 4, which was originally intended to be the final disc of this series, manuscripts of previously unperformed, unknown or lost works by Martinů continue to be discovered. Thus, any attempt at an anthology of “complete works” will be open to the possibility of future amendment. Since that time, Giorgio Koukl has researched and recorded enough piano works to produce three more discs. This sixth CD in the series opens with three sets from Martinů’s mature Parisian period.

In 1931, the year before he composed Esquisses de Danses, H. 220 [Volume 1, Naxos 8.557914, tracks 24–28], Martinů composed two other sets of Esquisses and two sets of Jeux. Panton published only the first set of 6 Esquisses and the second set of Jeux, together in a single volume as Esquisses / Jeux. The first set of Jeux remained unpublished, but is included on this CD, hence the correct titles Jeux I and Jeux II. Unfortunately the second set of 6 Esquisses became lost over the years. To acknowledge the fact that Martinů composed them as a companion, however, to the first set, they are correctly entitled here Esquisses I. These three sets are instantly recognizable as the Martinů most people know.

In Esquisses I, H. 203, one can hear an underlying “sewing machine” kind of momentum in the first movement, where texture is important and the melody is subservient. The second features ragtime, with clear influences of American rhythm and triadic harmony. Again, texture and rhythm reign, while melody seems to be the result rather than the lead cause. The third features delicious conundrums of rhythm and metre. The fourth is quieter, more melodic, bringing to mind Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and the importance of plagal cadences in Martinů’s music. The fifth is a little jazzy, with cross metres and a simple but effective melody repeated on different key centres. The sixth and final movement reiterates the feeling of the first but more directly melodic.

Jeux I, H. 205, is even more so unmistakably Martinů. The opening movement smacks of bitonality, and sequences that playfully blur the underlying pulse. The delightful second movement again offers the underlying “sewing machine,” while the third is a bit jaunty, jazzy, featuring the wonderful, fascinating cross patterns of notes of mature Martinů, which can often be terribly tricky to play, as, for example, a pattern with five notes in one hand and seven notes in the other. The fourth movement is itself distilled “essence of Martinů”.

Jeux II, H. 206, opens with underlying mechanical momentum, but with a bit of sassy jazz. Movement two is slightly Stravinsky-esque, with the insistent motor rhythm left hand. One can again notice a carry-over from Martinů’s earlier pieces of a tendency for phrases to be repeated at different pitch centres. Movement three is a perfectly beautiful little gem, with swirling patterns set against the metre that hold the attention magnificently, but this time used primarily for a peaceful effect. Number four is motortoccata- like usage of his pattern play. Again, Stravinsky and maybe even a little Poulenc come to mind. Movement five invokes similarities to slow movements of some of Martinů’s chamber works, with a blurred distinction of six beat groupings—sometimes ternary, sometimes binary, but very flowing and natural sounding. The sixth and final movement is delightful little grotesque march, reminiscent of Prokofiev. In contrast to these mature Parisian works, most of the remaining works on this disc were written in earlier years, in Martinů’s Czech homeland. According to Giorgio Koukl’s research, all of these tracks are world premiere recordings. .

The Three Lyric Pieces, H. 98, were written in Prague in 1915 during World War I. Number one certainly has a ding-dong quality of Martinů-ish bells, and fascinating harmonic progression almost two minutes into the piece. The second movement has a popular sounding introduction, almost as if it were from a musical theatre piece. The body of the work is beautiful, with interesting harmonizations. The third scherzando movement includes stereotypical western treatment of oriental music, bringing to mind the music of American impressionist Charles Tomlinson Griffes—particularly his Piano Sonata.

Although composed in Polička, Martinů’s brief Black Bottom is from 1927, the same year as his jazzy Trois esquisses [Vol. 1, tracks 18–20 of this series], and is clearly part of his Parisian style. Although it was composed only one year after Jelly Roll Morton recorded his classic Black Bottom Stomp in Chicago, Morton’s title refers to the Black Bottom district of Detroit. By contrast, Martinů’s Black Bottom is instead inspired by the popular dance which became the rage during the late 1920s, eventually overtaking the popularity of the Charleston, with which it shares similar rhythmic foundations. Martinů’s snapshot of the style again reminds one of his fascination with American dance music.

Evening at the Shore, H. 128, written in Prague in 1921, reveals the influence of Debussy, its impressionism also implied by the descriptive Czech titles of its movements: Plachetka se vracì vecčer do prčìstavu (A small sailing boat returns in the evening to the port), Písenč na pobrčeží (Song at the Shore), Brčehy v prčíboji (The Shore in the Storm). The second even evokes the sound of Puccini—not just the harmonies, but in particular the voicing of the melody just before the end. The third movement brings to mind comparisons not only Debussy, but also Griffes—both his Fountain of Acqua Paola (from the Roman Sketches) and his Piano Sonata.

The Song Without Words, H. 46, of 1921, also written in Prague, is a mournful tune but includes some of the earliest hints of the “bells” that would become an important element of Martinů’s style.

The Nocturne, H. 95, from 1915, written in Polička, offers a really interesting juxtaposition of styles. A gorgeous impressionistic haze of undulating harmonies takes turns with a straightforwardly tonal, almost march-like tune accompanied by bells.

The disc’s final track, the Chanson triste, H 36, of 1911, also written in Polička, is an effective character piece. It is a sad song indeed—generically so for the most part, but one snaps to attention with the harmonies between the hands toward the end, an early example of the bitonality found in so much of Martinů’s later music.

Mark Gresham and Cary Lewis

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