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James Harrington
American Record Guide, July 2009

After Koukl finished the final release in this series (Volume 4: Naxos 8.570215, May/June 2008), a number of unpublished manuscripts were discovered. The excellent booklet tells us that enough music for three more discs has been found and recorded. Everything here is a world premiere recording. I have to admit that my initial response to a program of Martinu Polkas and Waltzes was less than enthusiastic.

I could not have been more taken aback by these immediately appealing and always satisfying works. The combination of Koukl’s impeccable piano skills and his deep knowledge of the composer’s style results in performances that hold your attention from the first to the last notes—and over many hearings.

The unpublished Waltzes, Martinu’s first piano compositions, were written in 1910 by a 20-year-old. If you took some of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and crossed them with a touch of Bartok, this might be the result. The deceptive phrase lengths and unconventional harmonies come from the latter. The Slavic spirit and tunefulness would be from the former. In the Polkas of 1916, I would suggest that more than a dash of Chopin was added to mixture. Martinu had to be somewhat familiar with a polonaise or two and some mazurkas and waltzes. I am only a little familiar with some of Martinu’s chamber music that involves the piano. If this early solo piano music is an indication, there is a wealth of discovery awaiting me.

Koukl was inspired by his classes with Rudolf Firkusny (who was a long-time friend of and tireless advocate for Martinu and his piano music; they even lived on the same street in New York City). Today, Koukl would have to be the heir-apparent to Firkusny’s legacy. I cannot imagine more convincing performances than we have here. The sound quality is excellent, and there is more to come.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Volume Four was to have been the final release in Giorgio Koukl’s survey of the Complete Piano Music but along comes Volume Five with two previously unrecorded cycles to intrigue and amaze the Martinů lover. Not only that but Koukl, who has enjoyed access to previously unknown or ‘lost’ manuscripts, has enough material for even more volumes so that we shall be even more in the collective debt of pianist and record company.

The two cycles here are very early. The Waltzes date from 1910 and the Polkas from 1916. If we take the Five Waltzes first we can appreciate how, although broadly conventional, they look further afield geographically than one might expect. The First, an Andante, owes something to Albéniz and if the third is more straightforward in its affiliations it certainly lacks for little in boldness.  The last of them is undoubtedly the most noteworthy and the most affecting. It’s lyric, quite slow and very different from the preceding more stylised affair. The harmonies in No.11 tend to the slightly more aggressively impressionist in places and there is rich chording and then a ruminative, almost wistful close.

The Polkas were written in the middle of World War I and there are six of them. One notices immediately the composer’s happy penchant for erratic phrase lengths which gives the music an unbalanced, tensile verve even within the obvious constraints of the form. The opening Polka is quite Dvořákian though it sports some intriguing harmonic drifts in the writing. The second is perhaps more closely aligned with the older Czech figure with a powerful Slavonic Dance feel to boot. By the Third we move more into Chopinesque waters; it’s rather a statuesque piece, this one, but the lilting central section is more fluent. Moving between treble and bass sonorities No.4 creates its own intensity, whilst No.5 employs busier Chopin–inspired figuration to make its points which it does to better effect in its dreamy B section. The final Polka presents a more fully extrovert Chopin derived face; well assimilated though not especially distinctive. I think it’s fair to say that it would be well nigh impossible to guess the composer except for a few possible—very possible—intimations in the opening Polka.

Once again Koukl is the most distinguished guide and his excavation and retrieval work will, one hopes, lead not only to those further volumes but publication and public performances. These newly retrieved pieces tell us something, at least, about the composer’s development, and his enthusiasms. I would start with the lovely Fifth Waltz both to enjoy the writing at its most engaging and to appreciate Koukl’s playing at its more devoted.

Peter Collier
Dvorák Society Newsletter, May 2009

It gladdened my heart two years ago when Naxos announced it was to issue their own complete edition, which they did, with exemplary speed, producing 4 volumes excellently played by the Czech pianist  Giorgio Koukl  all of which were well received. I duly ticked off the pieces  from the catalogue printed at the end of the Martinů biography written by his friend Miloš Šafránek but was disappointed as there still seemed to be gaps. Now Naxos has issued a fifth volume of recently discovered pieces from Martinů’s youth—5 waltzes written in 1910 when he was 20 and entirely self taught, and 6 polkas from 1916. They are fascinating works , with, as one would expect , hints of Dvořák, Smetana, Schubert and Chopin though they do presage the later Martinů we have come to admire, with their odd harmonic and rhythmic shifts which could easily wrongfoot the unwary dancer! These are first rate performances by Giorgio Koukl and the good news is, he has recorded enough music from manuscripts for a further two volumes! Who knows, the Martinů Institute in Prague may even unearth more MSS. Watch this space!

Graham Melville-Mason
Dvorák Society Newsletter, May 2009

The first four volumes in this series were thought to be the end of the project, although Martinů was known to have written other piano pieces still unpublished or not located. Therefore it is a great pleasure to welcome another volume, bringing some delightful and entertaining early pieces, once again played with technical mastery and fine musicianship by Giorgio (Jiří) Koukl. This is an attractive disc, the Polkas being written between the first two sets of Loutky while the Waltzes are among the composer’s earliest surviving piano works and date from 1910. Listen to the first Polka—is this by Dvořák or perhaps Schubert, but then that must be Smetana?—and so it goes throughout the set with just occasional original touches which confuse the guessing game. With the Waltzes, earlier though they may be, Martinů seems less influenced yet the guessing game may still be played but the pointers are often less obvious, the mixture is more random and there are occasional touches of originality. The good news is that there may be further volumes to come.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, May 2009

World premiere recordings in the fifth disc of Naxos’s four-volume survey

Emil Leichner’s old Supraphon survey of Martinů’s piano music filled three CDs but Giorgio Koukl’s newly minted one has left that well behind. Leichner selected all the major items but one of the incidental joys of Koukl’s superior set—superior in terms of both performance and sound quality—has been the newly discovered works which have increasingly dominated the later issues. The present disc consists entirely of such novelties: indeed, these two early cycles emerge into the limelight after nine decades of obscurity.

The six Polkas 1916 form the larger group, written one imagines to divert amid the horrors of the Great War. The musical language is rather generically Bohemian, reminiscent of Dvořák and—at a greater distance—Smetana, with few hints of Martinů’s familiar neo-classical or late styles. Nonetheless, there is much to be enjoyed in each of the roughly five-minute-long works, best heard as miniature dance fantasies. The opening Allegretto (ma non troppo) is typical of the set, nicely laid out for the keyboard and full of pleasing sonorities and tunes. The Allegro sixth is built on a slightly larger scale, drawing together many facets of the set as befits the finale.

The coupling is earlier still, indeed Martinů’s first piano work, Five Waltzes written in 1910 before he had started his main composition studies. These again are pleasant enough although stylistically anonymous. In neither work is there any pretence to great music but Koukl plays them for all they are worth, aided by fine sound. The result is rather rewarding; two further volumes, it seems, are to follow and I for one cannot wait.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, April 2009

When I reviewed Volume 4 of this complete survey of Martinů’s piano music [8.570215] I was under the impression that it was the final issue in the set. In the notes for that release Naxos made the claim that new, and lost, manuscripts have turned up, and these discoveries have now made necessary the making of three more disks. Necessary, certainly, essential, without doubt.

The Polkas are very enjoyable. It must be said that there’s nothing startling or earth shaking about these miniatures—they simply entertain—but there are some unusual things to be encountered along the way. Although the language is almost entirely that of Smetana and Dvořák, number 4 brings in some startling silences which disrupt the flow of the music, not to mention some filigree work which the older composers would never have thought of. Number 5 is quite the bravura study, although it starts out as a simple dance and grows as the music progresses until suddenly we’re into the kind of full-blown study Chopin would have understood. After the first appearance of this music we return to the dance and so on. It’s really very exciting to hear this development of the material and see how the composer’s mind was working in such a simple form. The final Polka returns to the simpler mood of the earlier dances but it’s still a big piece—over seven minutes long—and well laid out for the full keyboard.

The Waltzes are Martinů’s earliest piano pieces and are truly delightful, but they are really salon pieces and there’s nothing which points the way to the master composer he was to mature into. The ghost of Dvořák is in evidence throughout the five pieces, but this is no criticism for there is much to enjoy in these simple sketches—they don’t aspire to much more than that. The third tries to become a big concert waltz. It’s interesting that even this early Martinů is seeking to expand a simple dance into something larger. At the end of the fourth there’s some interesting harmonic changes. The final waltz is part slowed–down Liadov Musical Snuff box and part Chaminade! An odd mix but entirely charming.

All Martinů fans will want this disk for it fills in some gaps in our knowledge of the composer. Even if you’ve been scared off the composer, though why that should be is beyond me, you’ll enjoy this disk as an example of Bohemian music in the lighter style. The lovely music is aided by a recording which is crisp and very clear, putting the piano in a concert hall perspective. The notes are very good too.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

Naxos thought that their fourth volume of Bohuslav Martinů’s piano music had completed the series until several previously unperformed manuscripts were discovered, this disc being the first of three world premiere recordings. The Five Waltzes, which date from 1910, is the earliest and was written when the composer was twenty and almost self-taught. That might explain the unique sounds, though there are instances of his musical world in his much later works following formal study. The other curious aspect is the feel that he had been influenced by others composers, yet there is no evidence he had come into contact with their works. As a young man he had been a loner living with his family high in a church tower 193 steps above the street. He was unable to accept formal education, but had somehow taught himself to play the violin to a standard that earned him a living as a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The Waltzes are unusual in the way they slip through keys, and though they are not major works, they are a curiosity well worth hearing. Whether Martinů was simply experimenting we will never know, but six years later, when he wrote the Polkas, he had been educated in composition, though was still using continual key changes to create music of pure delight. Sample track 3 for one of the happiest polkas you will ever encounter. There is nothing here to pose technical demands, but as with previous releases the Czech-born pianist, Giorgio Koukl, continues his love affair with Martinu and no other pianist today could make a more eloquent case for the music. The sound quality is everything you would want.

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