About this Recording
8.572373 - MARTINU, B.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 - Nos. 1, 2, 4 (Koukl, Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, Fagen)

Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Piano Concertos • 2


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. He was a prolific composer, with over four hundred pieces of music to his credit. 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, Martinů failed to complete his courses, and while a young man 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. Following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, with the imposing influence of the Soviet Union immediately to the east, a communist coup took place in Czechoslovakia in late February 1948. Martinů subsequently abandoned any plans of returning to his homeland. Although he visited France and Switzerland that summer, he returned to the United States in the autumn to become a professor of composition at Princeton University, a post which he held until 1951. In 1953, he left the United States with his wife Charlotte to settle in Nice, returning in late 1955 for a few months to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Mannes School in New York.

Martinů’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4, ‘Incantation‘, H. 358, with which this second volume opens, was completed in early 1956, prior to his final departure from the United States in May. It had its première in New York City on 4 October of that year with the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, and Leopold Stokowski conducting The Symphony of the Air, an American orchestra comprised of former NBC Symphony Orchestra musicians. The concerto’s form is distinctive in that it is free and asymmetrical, comprised of only two movements.

The first movement, Poco allegro, is a high tension affair that would fit the opening scene of a Hollywood science fiction thriller. When the piano finally makes its appearance with Martinů’s “bells”, the tension is hardly dissipated, but actually increased to a shimmering white heat. Likewise, the following dreamlike sequence does little to ease the blood pressure level of the listener. The rat-a-tat drum version of Martinů’s signature three-note motive adds to the sinister character of the proceedings. Finally a solo oboe brings some relief while the piano tries to calm things down with Martinů’s typical cadences, but of course there is a return to the tension of the opening. The surprising ending in a swirl of pianistic dust comes not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Poco moderato second movement is interesting for the strong element of dialogue between the orchestra and soloist. They each go on for considerable stretches of time without interference from the other. High drama is maintained throughout, with captivating colouristic effects, and it is fascinating to hear piano and orchestra pass the baton back and forth as if they were team-mates in a relay race. In his notes for the Martinů Institute’s catalogue of the composer’s works, musicologist Aleš Březina quotes Martinů as saying that the piece is an “expression of the never-ending search for truth and the meaning of life, as well as an homage to music, the musician’s reclusion, his powers and his arms.”

Martinů’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, H. 149, written in 1925, was given its première the following year by the pianist Jan Herˇman and the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Robert Manzer. The first movement, Allegro moderato, is totally delightful from start to finish. Brilliant tunes are treated in a fashion designed to appeal even to less sophisticated listeners. Even the fugal passages are fun. There is something of the trademark Martinů cross-rhythmic patterns along with echoes of Prokofiev and Poulenc, and even a smattering of English band music. This is Martinů at his tuneful and playful best.

A chorale-like tune serves as the foundation of the Andante second movement, a set of variations much in the nature of a neo-baroque chorale-prelude. It begins with orchestral strings and a solo oboe. The piano joins in an understated fashion like Bloch’s Concerto Grosso but it gradually becomes more brilliant with shades of Ravel’s Ondine. A stunningly impressive cadenza evolves into a Lisztian treatment and from there into pure Martinů before the movement returns to the calm sounds of the opening of the movement.

Neo-baroque references continue in the Allegro third movement, sounding much like something Vivaldi might have written had he lived during the early twentieth century. A fugal passage which serves as second theme is full of charm and delight. The middle of the movement reminds us that Martinů had not finished working with the chorale from the second movement. A final romp through the first and second themes brings this movement to a close with a constant feeling of tongue-in-cheek high frivolity. There is a sense that Martinů is daring us to guess whom he is quoting: Is that a bit of the Liszt Spanish Rhapsody there, or is it Gottschalk? Of course the movement cannot end without a cadenza featuring the bells that permeate so much of Martinů’s music.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, H. 237, composed in 1934 during Martinů’s Parisian period, also had its première in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic, but with Firkušný as pianist and Václav Talich conducting, some nine years after the first concerto.

In contrast to the first, which bubbles over itself with infectious fun-loving enthusiasm, this second concerto seems to take itself more seriously. This is not to say that it is heavy or morose, but there is an earnest quality that immediately engages the listener with Martinů’s own personal language. The Allegro moderato first movement (occasionally reminiscent of Prokofiev, Copland, Stravinsky, and even Brahms) is both dramatic and romantic, with those characteristics working together to make a convincing statement.

The second movement, marked Poco andante, begins with sublime flowing music in the orchestra answered by a questioning recitative in the piano that develops into a dramatic cadenza. Much of the music here seems to be an unabashedly romantic homage to Brahms, including what amounts to a direct quotation of that master’s famous double concerto for violin and cello, with very satisfying results.

The final movement, Poco allegro, is in three parts, with the outer parts typified by extended dialogues between the piano soloist playing increasingly complex broken chord passages and the orchestra exploring the characteristic three-note pattern that permeates so much of Martinů’s music. The middle section begins gently and gradually grows in intensity and excitement, finally blossoming into a soaring melody supported by lush harmonies. A final coda brings everything to a crashing dénouement.

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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