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8.572025 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 7 (Koukl)
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
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. Ten of the works on this seventh CD in the series are première recordings.
The present disc opens with two youthful sets with titles evoking the notion of fairy-tales, Pohádka o Zlatovlásce (A Fairy-Tale of Goldilocks), composed in 1910, and Z pohádek Andersenových (From Andersen’s Fairy Tales), subtitled Six piano pieces, from 1912. The first of these is neither related to the familiar ‘Three Bears’ tale of British origin, nor to the French fairy-tale by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. Instead, this ‘Zlatovlaska’ story seems to be a very personal one, about a girl with whom Martinů was in love, with each part descriptively accompanying his love story. The subtitle of the first movement, ‘As Princess Goldilocks met a Pale Boy’, is one clue to this autobiographical reference, as Martinů frequently styled himself ‘the pale boy’. The handwritten admonition at the end of the autograph’s first movement, ‘It is forbidden to anybody to play this music’, gives us an idea that the love story was not a happy one (quite usual for Martinů in that period of his life). To add to the intrigue, this first movement begins with nearly four-bars quoted from the opera Elektra by Richard Strauss, which itself had only had its première the year before. Martinů continues in the whole-tone scale, playing upon the Straussian harmonies for a total of seventeen bars, but then settles into a more tonal and Martinů-like writing with planing chords. Elektra references reappear emphatically in the final, tumultuous pages, which conclude with dramatic E flat major chords. The second movement, a happy Pastorale seems to be an impression of rural people and the countryside itself, perhaps an outdoor contradance with drones and an insistent rhythm building into a more emphatic drumming as an accompaniment to parallel tunes with cadences to different pitch centres. The Dumka is a simple, unsophisticated almost improvisatory and very effective plaintive song, and the Barkarola is likewise effective as a conclusion. Although Martinů had considered adding a fifth movement, a Waltz, he never made more than sketches.
From Andersen’s Fairy Tales, written two years later, quite possibly for didactic purposes, seems less typical of Martinů than the earlier Goldilocks. The Polonaise, Intermezzo, and Novelette are somewhat ordinary, the following Barcarolle, Arabesque, and Valse mignone [sic] are the more interesting half. While specific tales of Hans Christian Andersen are not mentioned, other autograph sources relate the movements to the days of the week, and either represent only six days (Monday to Saturday) or include the unfinished torso of a possible seventh ‘Sunday‘ movement titled Legenda.
In the remaining tracks on this disc Giorgio Koukl offers an array of short works with origins that span the majority of the composer’s productive life. Though the more cynical among critics consider such works “dust from the composer‘s table”, they are puzzle pieces which help complete the portrait of the composer, his times, and personal relationships, elements quite necessary to understanding Martinů.
The Ballade, H.56, of 1912 is subtitled ‘Chopin’s last chords’. While not clearly related to specific chords found in Chopin’s piano works, the emotional tone of this very Romantic piece does bring Chopin’s famous Prelude in C minor to mind.
On the other end of the chronological and emotional spectra, Merry Christmas 1941, H.286 bis, is unmistakable Martinů, with alternating bitonal chords between the hands, and chord progressions repeated in a way that hides the metre. Written for and dedicated to Hope Castagnola while the composer was living in Jamaica, New York, it is a cheerful, hopeful piece suited to holiday greetings, and reflective of Martinů’s new-found American success that same December when his Concerto Grosso was given its première by Sergei Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Little Lullaby, H.122 bis, of 1919 is composed in a very effective arch form, in which the active middle section could be imagined as depicting a restless child struggling against the soporific qualities of the music, and the final non-ending as he drifts off to sleep. Written in Polička during a summer return from Paris in 1929, La Danse, H.177, is dedicated to the Swiss composer Conrad Beck, who arrived in Paris one year after Martinů. It reveals the Parisian neoclassical influence of Stravinsky, in particular Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments of 1924.
Le train hanté, H.258 bis, is a special curiosity, written for the infamous but short-lived Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques appliqués dans la Vie Moderne (World Exposition) of 1937 in Paris. It was Martinů’s contribution among those of fifteen composers living in Paris at the time, and all dedicated to French pianist Marguerite Long. Although there was a Railway Pavilion devoted to rail transport, Le Train hanté (The Haunted Train) and others in this collection were not concerned with real railways but with various amusement rides at the exposition’s Parc d’Attractions. The other ‘rail’ pieces in the collection were Arthur Honegger’s Scenic Railway and Alexander Tcherepnin’s Autour des montagnes russes (‘Russian Mountains’ is a euphemism for a roller coaster).
In the 1921 Prélude, H.178, one can hear the pianistic “bells” familiar in later Martinů, and an emphatic invitation to listen to whatever comes next. The Foxtrot, H.123 bis, composed the previous year, is filled with lighthearted good humour, though it begins and ends in a minor key. It is yet another example of Martinů’s interest in American popular dance forms. It should not be confused with the other Foxtrot, H.126 bis, written in the same year, which was recorded in Vol. 1 (8.557914) of this series. Jaro, H.127 ter, (Spring), from 1921, is an attractive piece of very recent discovery. It quickly reminds the listener of Ravel and also (but perhaps less so) of Debussy.
The Children’s Pieces, H.221, of 1932 are charming, appealing, and not altogether easy. They successfully avoid that pedantic feeling which can be the kiss of death for teaching pieces. The dedication is to the children of architect Bohoslav Šmíd, ‘to remember the holidays at Potstejn’.
The final work on this disc, Avec un doigt, is a three-handed gem that is fun, yet challenging. The over-all sound is impressive enough to make any one-fingered novice feel proud of the accomplishment, and the two-handed part is suave and urbanely chic. Chiara Solari, Giorgio Koukl’s wife, plays the solo finger part for this recording.
Mark Gresham and Cary Lewis
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