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American Record Guide, January 2008

This is Giorgio Koukl's third installment in his recordings for Naxos of Martinů's complete piano music. As I noted in my initial review, I was not certain how well he would do. After all, an Italian playing a Czech? But as it turned out my misgivings were wrong. He is a Swiss-Italian, but he was born in Prague in 1953 and attended the Prague State Music School and Conservatory. At 15 in the fateful year 1968 he managed to move to Switzerland. In a master class with Rudolf Firkušny he was introduced to Martinů's piano music. He immediately began incorporating it into his recitals. He plays it splendidly.

Naxos gives him a rich, full recording and excellent notes. Each of these 24 short works is a splendid example of Martinů's pianistic craftsmanship.

The Fantasy and Toccata was dedicated to Rudolf Firkušny and was written in Aix-en-Provence as Martinů was escaping from France in 1940. The piano sonata is Martinů's largest and last piano work, written in 1954 and dedicated to Rudolf Serkin. Serkin didn't give the official premiere, but he played it the day after Martinů finished it and often programmed it before Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

The three volumes of Etudes and Polkas were written the summer of 1945 at Cape Cod. Firkušny gave their premiere at Carnegie Hall early in 1946. They are reminiscent of the folk-style dances of Dvořak and Smetana.

The Three Czech Dances were written in Paris in 1926.

Jed Distler, December 2007

The third volume of Naxos' Martinu piano music cycle showcases the composer's mature style in what many consider to be his finest and most original works for the instrument. Both the hauntingly lyrical Sonata and volatile Fantaisie et toccata were written for Rudolf Firkusny, whose idiomatic, multi-hued RCA recordings retain their reference status. However, Giorgio Koukl's interpretations more than hold their own in such august company.

For example, while Toccata hardly lacks for rhythmic impetus, Koukl's intelligent melodic projection never allows the churning patterns to become percussive or mechanical. The pianist also puts musical considerations ahead of surface bravura in the delightful Etudes and Polkas. You'll notice how he gently differentiates the shifting accents in Book One's A major Polka, whereas Emil Leichner's faster tempo yields a few flustered moments. On the other hand, Leichner's hypnotic legato and remarkable melody/accompaniment separation in the same book's D major Etude and Pastorale and Book Three's A minor Etude linger more memorably in the ear than Koukl's relatively conventional pianism. And when it comes to the difficult single-note/chord leaps in Book Three's F major Etude, Leichner's leaner, quicker sharpshooting contrasts to Koukl's slower yet more dynamically conscientious interpretation.

Although I don't intend to give up Firkusny in the big works or Leichner's Etudes and Polkas, Koukl's stylish perception and tonal warmth serve Martinu proud, as do Naxos' fine sonics. Recommended.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, November 2007

The finest disc in Koukl’s beautifully played survey of Martinů’s piano music

For his third – and presumably, final – instalment of Martinů’s complete piano works, Giorgio Koukl has collected the cream of his later output plus one gem from the mid-1920s. Martinů’s piano works tend to consist of very short movements, but the most substantial ones in this mature output are to be found in the first five tracks, comprising the bracing Fantaisie et toccata (1940), written while he was waiting to reach safe haven in America, and his lone Sonata (1954), penned after his return to Europe.

Leaving aside the Sonata’s finale, each of these movements is not less in duration than the delightful Czech Dances (1926) or the second book of Etudes and Polkas (1945).

Koukl is equally at home in the larger spans as the slighter ones, audibly relishing the character of Martinů’s late keyboard manner more than in the early repertoire of the previous release (5/07). His robust approach suits the Fantaisie et toccata and Sonata rather better but his touch is light and sure in all three books of Etudes and Polkas and the Czech Dances, both of which he brings alive where other exponents have sometimes made them sound mechanical. The Sonata, written for and championed by Rudolf Serkin, is not the easiest of Martinů’s keyboard works on first acquaintance but this is one of the best accounts of it I have heard. The Naxos recording is a real boon here, the sound crystal clear with the piano ideally placed and focused in the acoustical piucture. Recommended.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2007

The third volume of Giorgio Koukl’s survey of Martinů’s piano music is as successful as the previous two. In my review of the second disc of the series I described some of the differences between Koukl’s approach and that of Emil Leichner, whose Supraphon set of the piano music (not quite the complete piano music) has been something of a benchmark set for many years now. Koukl tends to etch rhythms with greater incision and Leichner tends to a greater sense of reflectiveness. This is certainly a crudely suggestive way of approaching these two important readings of the piano music but for the purposes of this review it does indicate the divergences of approach that both men bring to bear. It may also help direct you if you wish to follow one or the other – though of course there are a number of other discs by other pianists worthy of note.

The Sonata is the most important work here. Koukl is sensitive to the Poco allegro marking here whilst Leichner prefers to emphasise the Allegro rather at the expense of the poco. I suspect this is to mitigate what Leichner may have detected as structural problems and to vest the opening with a powerful drive so as to balance the concluding Adagio. Leichner certainly makes the most of the contrasts here, despite the relative speed, and though his overall timing is very similar to Koukl’s the distribution amongst the three individual movements is very different. Though Leichner manages to find light and shade in his opening movement Koukl’s greater deliberation pays dividends. And he finds just the right sense of starkness and deliberation in that powerful Adagio finale which he plays with gravity and singular intensity.

The depth of Koukl’s bass is palpable in the Fantasie et Toccata. Its immediacy is arresting and stresses the abrupt dynamism of the writing. Koukl’s playing here locates the imperturbable violence and threat in the writing – it was written in 1940 after all. This is a more intensive and tensile approach than Leichner’s rather more skittish neo-classicism, though one wouldn’t want to underestimate Leichner’s determined commitment to the bellicose writing. Koukl certainly brings the edginess and brittle attacks of the Toccata very much to the fore. This is valiant and perceptive playing indeed, emphasised by the very immediate nature of the studio recording.

After these two powerful and important statements we turn to the Etudes and Polkas – lighter fare written in 1945. These brief and expert pieces – none lasting longer than three minutes - bring out Koukl’s instinct for rhythmic vivacity and alluring tone. As one might expect he’s generally – not always but usually – faster than Leichner and this brings advantages in terms of terpsichorean vitality. Curiously Leichner feels the Pastorale of the First Volume rather faster than Koukl – I thought it would be the other way around. The three Czech Dances round off the programme and Koukl, Prague born, knows all about them. He can do the Obkročák with the best of them.

Interpretative excellence once again from Koukl - and so volume four is awaited with anticipation.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2007

In the third volume of the complete solo piano output of Bohuslav Martinu we have reached his major works in this genre, the Fantaisie et Toccata and the Sonata forming two towering masterworks of the 20th century. From his maturity and with Martinu's fingerprints all over them, they are more substantial than much that he wrote for the keyboard. As a young man he was a loner living with his family high in a church tower 193 steps above the street. It was to affect his nature such that he was unable to accept formal education, but had somehow taught himself to play the violin to a standard that found him earning a living as a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He had also been composing music which he now realised was worthless, and decided to go to try once again to seek education, this time in Paris with Roussel. he learnt little, but it did at least offer a link to other musicians living in the city. It is oft said with justification that he composed far too much for his own good, but pick and choose from his output and we have one of the most important musical voices of the 20th century. The Second World War saw his quick departure from Paris, and while awaiting safe passage to the United States, he worked on the pungent, hard hitting and virtuoso Fantaisie et Toccata for the great Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, his companion also awaiting the boat to America. After the war Martinu returned to Europe and it was in France that he wrote the three-movement Sonata in 1954, his final major keyboard composition. A few months previous he had completed three volumes of Etudes and Polkas, the title rather belying the serious content that taxes the pianist's dexterity and ability. We go back to 1926 for the Three Czech Dances based on rural folk melodies, written at a time when Martinu was working in a much simpler musical language. The disc poses considerable technical demands for the soloist, the Czech-born Martinu specialist, Giorgio Koukl, untroubled by the complexities of the Fantaisie et Toccata which he plays with clarity and deceptive ease. As with previous volumes, you doubt whether any pianist today could make such an eloquent case for the music.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group