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American Record Guide, May 2008

This is the fourth volume of Martinu's piano music that Naxos has given us in the past year (Mar/Apr 2007, May/June 2007, Nov/Dec 2007). Despite my initial misgivings about an Italian playing such intensely Czech music, Koukl does, indeed, play it well. Of course, he was born in Prague and educated at the Conservatory there and was introduced to Martinu's music in a master-class with Rudolf Firkusny. What more need be said?

This volume is as well played and enjoyable as the first three. It should be obvious from the huge list of contents that this is mainly short works; nothing is longer than five plus minutes and four works take less than a minute. Even so, they are highly polished miniatures and will surely appeal to anyone interested in Martinu's music.

Excellent recording and notes.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, February 2008

The final disc in Koukl's beautifully played complete Martinů survey

As the 50th anniversary of Martinů's death (in 1959) approaches, manuscripts – usually of small items or sketches previously thought lost or mislaid – continue to come to light, so, with the Seven Czech Dances (1930) and Les ritournelles (1932) omitted from Vols 1-3, enough material existed for Naxos to trump Leichner's Supraphon survey (nla) with this fascinating further disc without needing to raid his juvenilia. Seven pieces here receive world premiere recordings, notably three Preludes: No 1 "on the theme of the Marseillaise" and No 2 in F minor pre-date the Great War but the unnumbered Prelude, H140 (which concludes the disc), dates from 1924. As might be imagined they are relatively insubstantial, unlike the splendid marine fantasy Rujana (1915), a musical portrait of the Gennan island resort of Rügen, which at 5'23" is the longest single track on offer. The other novelties are A Note in a Scrapbook No 1, For Dancing and Piece for the Little Evas, trifles of around a minute in length which date variously to the late 1920s and '30s.

Some items, such as the Improvisation, Bagatelle Morceau facile (1949) and Instructive Duo for the Nervous (c 1927) are tiny indeed, playing for under 50". The whimsicality of the title for the last of these is echoed in another delightful miniature, Procession of tbe Cats, on Solstice Night (1919), the inspiration for which came from folklore. Koukl's performances are a delight throughout, strong in the larger sets of Czech Dances and Les ritournelles as well as the unfamiliar Quatre movements – about which nothing is stated in the notes - and the three Dumky. Excellent sound, too.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2008

The intrepid Giorgio Koukl has now reached volume four in his estimable and important series devoted to the solo piano works. He fuses acute appreciation of dance and rhythmic patterns with questions of sonority. And he is at all times conscious of the scale of things. This is important given that he now turns to a number of works that have never been recorded before – there are nine such in this disc.

The programme is cleverly constructed. Compositional dates range from 1913 to 1957 – pretty much the entire span of his active life – and allow us to see more clearly the sheer range of influences and preoccupations, from pre-Parisian jeux d’esprit to the late in memoriam piece for Vítězslava Kaprálová.

The recital begins with Seven Czech Dances "Borova" H 195 – one of the better-known works. Martinů collectors will long have leaned on the Supraphon set recorded by Emil Leichner. And though other players have ventured into the discographical waters – there’s a series on Tudor for instance - it’s to Leichner that adherents have generally looked in this repertoire; rightly so, as he’s an impressive guide. There’s little between Koukl and Leichner in these seven dances except perhaps in No.7 where Leichner is the quicker and perhaps the more biting. The recording qualities vary with Koukl’s sounding a touch harder and therefore both more incisive and less intimate.

Les ritournelles H 227 sees Koukl quicker than Leichner in all movements and there are correspondingly big differences in characterisation throughout. Koukl is not inclined to reprise Leichner’s rather more seigniorial approach – and the former’s playing is stylish, committed and energetic. Both men bring a remarkably different sound world in their disparate approaches to one of the composer’s most exciting sets though neither is as fast as Firkušný in his RCA traversal [74321 886822 – an all-Martinů two CD set which includes concerto performances].  No one can really match Firkušný’s tonal qualities and sheer vitality either.

The Dumka for Piano No 2 “Elegie” H 250 is a piece of substance and the Adagio was written for Vítězslava Kaprálová and her father in 1957, towards the end of the composer’s life. It sounds strangely Beethovenian but not overtly lachrymose – there’s a strong stoic vein running through it, Martinů binding its rhetoric to ages past. Other pieces, especially the nine previously unrecorded ones, are of slighter import but exciting for the Completist. Some last for less than a minute. Pro tanec (For Dancing) has a touch of Ježek about it but Rujana is more intriguing. It’s a seascape – very unusually for the composer - but its writing is too rugged for impressionism; maybe pictorialism would fit the stylistic bill better. Still – a valuable restoration. The Prelude No.2 in F minor bears its Chopinesque imprint strongly; there are a couple of bizarrely named titles as well that together last less than two minutes - Instructive Duo for the Nervous and Procession of the Cats on Solstice Night. These are both School of Paris inspirations.

So Koukl has cast his net wisely and well, mixing established classics of Martinů’s piano canon with works that none but a manuscript editor would have heard. The result is that volume four proves indispensable to the Martinů completist. Don’t expect revelations from the previously unrecorded pieces but they do round out his enthusiasms and preoccupations very nicely. There is, one hopes, still more to come from this series, which will make it an important contribution to Martinů studies on disc for years to come.


And a further perspective from Bob Briggs

 This disk is simply delightful. Most of the pieces are in various dance forms, and at times there’s the naughty tinge of jazz, but, perhaps surprisingly, there’s more than sufficient variety within the programme to keep the attention.

The works cover the whole forty-plus years of Martinů’s composing career, from the sea fantasy, Ruyana, to the Adagio in memoriam, commemorating Vaclav Kapril and his daughter Vítězslava Kaprálová, who died tragically young, both composers. Vítězslava was also Martinů’s student and lover. It has been reported that the manuscript score of Martinů’s 5th String Quartet was littered with risqué references to this relationship but these were excised, after the composers’ death, due to the politics of the Czechoslovakian state of the time.

There are no masterpieces here, just very enjoyable miniatures, mostly written in Martinů’s clearly defined neo-classical style. The scholarship is of a high degree, ferreting out even the most miniature of works and presenting them for us.

I am sure that most of these pieces were dashed off without a thought for performance: Martinů just felt the need to express himself in a certain way at a certain time. What they don’t give you is the impression that here is one of the major symphonists of the 20th century, but they do show him in an agreeably different light.

Over the past few months I have had the very great pleasure of welcoming a number of Naxos’s new releases and I am quickly running out of superlatives for this company. They never seem to put a foot wrong.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, January 2008

The fourth and final instalment in the budget label's survey of the piano works of Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) includes 11 that have never before been recorded. Expat Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl offers up sleek renditions of everything from folk dances to variations on La Marseillaise to the cute Procession of the Cats on Solstice Night. A treat.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2007

The story of the boy born in December 1890 who lived in the church tower from where his father could see the whole village as watchman, has oft been told as an explanation for Bohuslav Martinu's difficult personality in his younger years. Gifted as a violinist after having practiced so many hours cut-off from other children, he gave his first recital to an astonished local audience at the age of fifteen. Sent to the Prague Conservatory where he studied violin and composition, his dislike of formal teaching found him expelled. From there he joined the Czech Phiharmonic Orchestra and realised the mass of compositions he had already written was worthless. Again trying to study, this time with Suk, he found it impossible and left for Paris in 1923. There he lived in abject poverty but was able to meet musically influential people and with their encouragement an abundance of music flowed from him. Fate conspired against him just when he began to taste success, his name appearing on a Nazi party 'wanted' list, and after many difficulties he managed to find sanctuary in the United States. There Koussevitzky gave him some financial security with a commission for a new symphony each year for five years to be played by the Boston Symphony. Martinu's detractors would say he wrote far too much for his own good, and his distaste for taking a 'second look' at existing works leaving weak moments in many scores. His piano output numbered 80 works, this being the last disc in his completed scores. It acts as a sweeping-up exercise with 38 tracks, some being only a few seconds long, such as the humorously titled Instructive Duo for the Nervous. There is one substantial work, the happy Seven Czech Dances dating from 1930, while his touching Adagio 'In Memoriam' was for Vaclav Kapral and his daughter. The girl, once Martinu's piano pupil and young lover, had died aged 25 shortly after he had left Paris. It was fitting that it was his last piano work before his death in 1959. Lots of music that will charm and delight, and we should not feel cheated that there are no great discoveries. As throughout the Czech-born pianist, Giorgio Koukl, has been a safe pair of hands to guide us through Martinu's inner thoughts. The sound seems to have improved as we have progressed and is now of high quality.

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