Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, October 2012

I can say…that every time I prepare to listen to a Martinů concerto, I feel like a kid about to unwrap a Christmas present…all of Martinů’s piano concerti get my heart singing.

In its outer movements, the first concerto, typical of Paris in the Twenties, frisks about like a puppy. The ensemble leans to chamber proportions. Textures and rhythms are clear and athletic. Martinů’s fondness for counterpoint comes out, especially counterpoint that tricks the ear into hearing more voices than actually sound. It is music to make you smile in spite of yourself. The piano and the ensemble do a lot of hand-offs of themes. The strings introduce a lovely pastoral section which is taken up by other sections in the orchestra and finally by the piano which comments and elaborates.

The second movement opens in quiet triple-time, like a siciliana, mainly with strings and oboe.

The finale evokes pure joy, with the three-note cell slowed down, providing punctuation to the ecstatic runs.

As I say, I have no way to determine Martinů’s best piano concerto, but I do call #2 my favorite. The orchestration has acquired depth. The musical phrases seem to extend forever, and there’s a unique lyricism—a synthesis of song and dance. The dances sing and the songs dance. For all its mass, the pianist and orchestra interact in chamber-like ways…

The second movement, despite its tranquil opening, startles nevertheless with a theme strikingly similar to the main theme of the second movement of Brahms’s Double Concerto. The theme begins modestly and grows richer as the movement proceeds.

A fanfare from the orchestra, quick-running streams of notes from the solo piano, and we’re into the first theme of finale, filled with Martinů’s iconic three-note cell. As in the first concerto, the soloist and the orchestra keep mainly to themselves, alternating rather than integrating. Another pastoral second subject…gains intensity as it proceeds. Both subject groups are developed in surprising ways…

[In] Concerto #4…A wonderful “suspended” opening typifies Martinů’s late period…The Czech elements make their presence felt in the long, lyrical, syncopated phrases. One such passage, for solo piano, has a chant-like quality, and there is a curious passage for a small ensemble in the development. This leads to powerful utterances in both the solo and the orchestra…

The second movement opens with the iconic 3-note motif, taken up by the entire orchestra, in another gesture of suspension, an important one in this movement…brought about by ingenious pedal points.

The many handoffs between pianist and orchestra in these works come off without stutter or hitch. Naxos has done it again. Its Martinů series is well worth your time and, at budget prices, irresistible. © 2012 Classical Net

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2011

Volume 1 in this cycle of Martinů’s piano concertos (Naxos 8.572206)…was reviewed approvingly by James A. Altena in Fanfare 33:6. It contained the composer’s Third and Fifth Concertos, plus the Concertino. This second volume, containing the First, Second, and Fourth Concertos, presumably completes Koukl’s and Fagen’s survey, though technically, there are at least two other keyboard concertos: the Divertimento (Concertino) for Piano Left Hand, H 173, and the Concerto for Two Pianos, H 292. It remains to be seen whether the current team will get around to recording these additional works.

The Fourth Concerto, subtitled “Incantations,” is Martinů’s last major work to be written during his final stay in the U.S. Later that year, he left the country to take up the post of composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. But Switzerland was to be his journey’s end, for that’s where he died in 1959. Pianist Rudolf Firkušny premiered the concerto in New York with Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air in 1956, shortly before Martinů’s departure for Italy.

The score is characteristic of the composer’s neoclassical style; but its sharp dissonances and angular, motor-like rhythms, familiar from other Martinů works, also display something of the jazz influences of Gershwin, the brash, busy business of Broadway, and the sometimes hokey histrionics of Hollywood that Martinů would have absorbed during his years in the States. The colorful and brilliant orchestration, almost Respighi-like in its dazzle, sounds cinematic, while the melodic and harmonic profile occasionally resembles something by Ferde Grofé.

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, discussing Martinů’s Fourth Concerto, compares it in one respect to Brahms’s B♭-Major Concerto, maintaining that it’s not really a virtuoso vehicle for the soloist but really more of a chamber concerto, albeit one that employs a large orchestra and is conceived on the large scale of the big Romantic period concerted works. I’m not sure—nor does the Naxos booklet note explain—what the “Incantations” subtitle refers to...

The Piano Concerto No. 1, written by the 35-year-old Martinů two years after he’d left his native land for Paris, is a neoclassical piece dressed in a sort of neobaroque style that he may have absorbed from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, and music he’d possibly heard by one or another of Les Six in some of the Parisian cabarets. Breezy, brisk, and a bit cockeyed, Martinů’s score delights in bending the ear with tuneful bitonality. But the piece also recalls the composer’s not-so-distant homeland and romantic roots, as it does in the meltingly beautiful, Czech-tinged Andante movement.

Martinů was well into his Parisian period when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2. The bitonality and French cabaret elements seem largely gone, as the music takes on a more serious, almost Brahmsian, cast. It’s as if Martinů is returning to his romantic roots. The Poco Andante confirms as much with a movement which, according to the note authors “seems to be an unabashedly romantic homage to Brahms.”

If you’re just beginning to explore the music of Martinů and/or you’re on a budget, this fine Naxos release can be recommended without reservation.

Once again, there is much to enjoy on this new Naxos recording. Certainly if you acquired the first volume, you’ll want this one. And though I may have expressed a slight preference for one or another version of these works, Koukl and Fagen do not disappoint. Fine performances and a well-engineered recording make for a positive recommendation.

Alan Becker
American Record Guide, March 2011

This volume completes Koukl’s survey of the Martinů piano concertos and further expands his survey of the complete piano works. People who have already invested in the seven volumes of solo piano need not hesitate to add this to their shelves. It contains the rarely recorded First Concerto—seldom recorded. It is a spiky affair in a neo-baroque style. There are plenty of delightful melodies and little justification for overlooking it all these years.

Concertos 2 and 4 complete this two-disc survey, and they are also brilliantly performed. While I did not get to review the first volume, it was welcomed by Lawrence Hansen. Emil Leichner’s two-disc edition on Supraphon is unavailable here, but can be obtained from European sources. It is certainly as good as this Naxos and does have a few additional works. Firkusny’s last recording for RCA contained only Concertos 2-4 with Libor Pesek—no longer available. Several additional recordings have been made of individual concertos, but Koukl and crew offer all five, and the playing is excellent by any standard.

It is almost impossible not to like these ebullient, melodic, and extremely well crafted works. Koukl’s understanding of Martinů’s style takes in all of the wit and energy the composer likes to generate. Fagen and the orchestra respond with stunningly articulated clarity, and the close-up recorded sound is as fine as one could wish for. If we add to this the informative notes, this becomes a must purchase.

Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, February 2011

The major work here is Martinů’s Fourth Piano Concerto, without doubt the composer’s most intractable and unorthodox of the five. The concerto is stormy and episodic, not one that lends itself easily to listener accessibility, but not exactly a concerto that discourages audiences, either. Yet, for all its obstinacies and seeming structural detours, it is highly rewarding. Cast in two movements, it is a concerto that looks two ways: toward the less serious side of a composer who could write light music, and toward the more complex side of a composer who here desired greater expressive depth. In a sense, he succeeds in both quests: the concerto has many appealing melodic and rhythmic elements for first-time listeners, but also conveys a darker more profound expressive manner.

The give-and-take between soloist and orchestra in the Fourth Concerto comes across strangely, almost with a mutual hostility, as if conceived in the spirit of separation of church and state: there are long passages where the pianist either plays unaccompanied or sits idle while the orchestra takes center-stage. In the end, the work strikes the listener as a blend of the unsettling and the mysterious, with, in the first movement, lots of harp glissandos and occasional activity from the glockenspiel to fashion mystery, and, in the second, with a darker, eerie sense to impart uncertainty. The work seems to end triumphantly, however, and features a somewhat imaginative Gershwinian coda.

The Concerto No. 1 (1925) is neo-Classical and quite light. It’s what some might think of as cute and clever, and while that observation might imply a dismissive attitude, I’m suggesting nothing of the sort. Cast in three movements, it is a work many will like upon first hearing, with attractive rhythms and themes and lots of colorful piano writing, and with hints of Liszt in the second movement. It strikes the listener, at least this listener, as if it might have been written by a man under the spell of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: try the playful opening, wherein the orchestra states the self-consciously neo-Classical main theme with an oxymoronic mixture of innocence and mischief.

The Third Concerto (1934) is somewhat closer in spirit to the First than the Fourth. But it has a few hints of Rachmaninov and Bartók here and there, especially in the quieter moments of the first movement. That said, the work is really not imitative, at all—it’s pure Martinů, always seeming to go its own, rather distinctive way, with colorful, often playful piano writing and more than a few whiffs of Czech exoticism.

Pianist Giorgio Koukl turns in fine work, matching the high level of artistry he achieved in the first issue in this series, which contained Concertos 2 and 5 and the Concertino. His dynamics and articulation, as well as his grasp of staccato writing, brilliantly capture Martinů’s coloristic effects and eclectic nature. Other past Czech pianists on various Supraphon recordings, like Jan Panenka, Ales Bilek and Josef Palenicek, were also effective, but Koukl is at least their equal and often their superior in these performances. But comparisons are almost a moot point, as Koukl’s cycle is apparently the only one currently available, and non-cycle issues of the concertos are sparse. Arthur Fagen draws excellent playing from the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra, and Naxos provides vivid sound. Listeners willing to give the five Martinů concertos a chance should find most of them quite rewarding and well worth their attention.

Harlow Robinson
The Boston Globe, January 2011

It’s a mystery why the charming music of prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) still remains so underrepresented in the standard orchestral repertoire. Perhaps the explanation lies in Martinů’s restless life: Born in Bohemia, he studied in Prague, decamped for Paris in the 1920s, fled to America to escape the Nazis, and died in Switzerland. Musically, too, Martinů’s eclectic style eludes categorization. Deeply influenced by his countryman Leoš Janáček, Martinů later embraced neo-classicism and jazz. Within a single composition, he can shift styles like an actor changing masks.

This welcome Naxos recording completes a two-disc survey of Martinů’s five-piano concerto with Czech-Swiss Martinů specialist Giorgio Koukl at the keyboard and American Arthur Fagen conducting. While no one will mistake the Martinů Philharmonic of the provincial Czech city of Zlín for a major-league band, the result is enjoyable and fresh. The neo-classical, sunny Piano Concerto No. 1 (1925) engages throughout with memorable tunes and infectious effervescence. The vigorous Second Concerto (1934) recalls Prokofiev’s dynamic wit and dazzling virtuoso solo work. In the less conventional two-movement Fourth Concerto (1956), Martinů adopts a more solemn mood, charged with fateful bells, tense string writing, and modern drama.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, January 2011

Koukl and Fagen complete their survey of Martinů’s piano concertos in fine style

Koukl’s splendid coupling of the Third and Fifth Concertos (3/10) has rightly drawn warm praise and this next instalment in his revelatory series of Martinů’s piano music carries on where the previous one left off. The same clarity and precision of touch is evident in his playing throughout, allied to a natural musicality and a positive sense of structure shared by conductor Arthur Fagen, who supports in exemplary fashion with the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra of Zlín.

Wisely, the disc opens with the best-known of the three, the Fourth (1955–56). His most visionary concerto, its title—Incantation—really does not do justice to the extraordinary character of the music, nor its unique design. The two fantasia-like movements run the gamut of moods from the serene to the volcanic. Like Firkušný on RCA (nla) before him, Koukl highlights the music’s mercurial changes of atmosphere and elliptical construction with consummate skill and is warmly recorded. Ondine’s sound for the fine Kolinsky disc is better still, glorious even, but by comparison to Koukl, Kolinsky now seems as concerned with the technical as the expressive challenges.

Kolinsky remains a formidable rival, none the less, not least in the serious-minded and more conventionally laid out Second Concerto (1934). Here, to be honest, there is little to choose between them. Completists will want Koukl to set alongside Vol 1 (Kolinsky’s had the 1953 Overture and Les fresques de Piero della Francesca) and the inclusion of the exuberant First (1925), placed centrally between the two more high-minded concertos, is a huge bonus. From the very opening it is a delightful romp through French neo-classicism with lively tunes and piquant orchestration. Warmly recommended.

Jan Smaczny
BBC Music Magazine, January 2011

Giorgio Koukl gives energetic and authoritative performances of each of the concertos

The Dallas Morning News, December 2010

Bohuslav Martinů grew up in what is now the Czech Republic, came to maturity as a composer in Paris and lived in the United States during most of his final years. He left so much music behind—most of it extremely attractive—that performers and audiences have been slow to take it all in.

This second and final Naxos volume of his five piano concertos makes you wonder why these entertaining pieces aren’t at least as popular as Prokofiev’s comparable concertos. Both composers turned out music that’s fun to listen to and shows off a virtuoso’s skills.

With any 20th-century composer, it’s always tempting to look for connections and influences. Here, the Concerto No. 1 first brings to mind the neoclassical Stravinsky in his Pulcinella mode, and indeed the concerto was written soon after the Russian’s ballet. But the central section of the first movement has that open-air quality of Aaron Copland’s populist style—which Copland didn’t create until a decade later. The slow movement and finale pull out all the big-gun pianist stops.

The Concerto No. 2 has a grandeur that makes you wonder how history might have been changed if Martinů had moved to Hollywood rather than New York and Princeton. Again, Stravinsky seems just over the horizon, but the earlier Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. The Concerto No. 4 finds Martinů reminiscing about his Central European roots. Even the ghost of Brahms seems to be wafting about.

Giorgio Koukl, a Czech expatriate living in Switzerland, already recorded Martinů’s solo piano music for Naxos. He’s enormously impressive here, as is the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic (of Zlin, Czech Republic) under American maestro Arthur Fagen.

James Manheim, December 2010

Begin with the performances here: they’re superb. The continuing high standards of musical life in the Czech Republic are on display here: the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra of Zlín has the feel for Martinů’s style that one would expect of a specialist ensemble, but a much cleaner sound and sense of ensemble that you would normally hear in an orchestra from a city of 75,000 people, otherwise best known for Bata shoes. Prague-born Swiss pianist Giorgio Koukl, who points out that he and Martinů both got out of Czechoslovkia just ahead of invading armies, 30 years apart, is an admirable interpreter of the Czech composer who fused a sprightly French neo-classicism with a Czech attitude toward rhythm. All three of these piano concertos are crowd-pleaseres and deserve wider exposure. The two-movement Piano Concerto No. 4, “Incantation,” composed during one of Martinů’s stints in the U.S. in 1956, is a sort of dry Czech take on American movie music. Of the greatest interest are the two earlier concertos, written between the wars and describable, unlike so many other works of the period, as joyous. Sample the finale of the Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1926 (track 5), which transcends the neo-Baroque trend of the time with an irrepressible vigor. It’s a great pleasure. This all-Czech production, recorded at the House of Arts in Zlín, continues to suggest the riches of Eastern European music between the wars; composers from this part of the world synthesized the various experiments undertaken in larger musical centers into convincing and lasting wholes.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

The second disc of the complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů contains music from both ends of a life divided by the Second World War. The first two come from an early period spent in Paris where he had gone to study with Albert Roussel. As a person who did not enjoy formal education, he probably gained little, but remained in the city living in poverty and composing with undiminished vigour. Though written not long after his arrival in France, the First Concerto shows he had already become influenced by the music he heard there. There is also that ‘tongue-in-cheek’ style of composition much in vogue in Paris, while at the same time he harks back to the Baroque era in the second and third movements. For the soloist it is a score littered with awkward and difficult writing, the finale containing a heavyweight cadenza that makes many demands. The Second was written nine years later, the mood of happiness in the First, now changing to something far more serious and following the modernity of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. It was premiered by the pianist, Rudolf Firkusny, whose help Martinů later used to established himself in the States where Firkusny gave the first performance of the Fourth in 1956. This is a work that oozes with all the musical fingerprints that Martinů established with his symphonies and operas, and as such can be seen as his most outstanding in the genre. As in the first disc [Naxos 8.572206], the soloist, Giorgio Koukl, offers playing that sets aside the technical hurdles. Good sound quality.

David Hurwitz, November 2010

This concluding installment in Naxos’ series of the complete Martinů piano concertos is good, but not quite as good as the first volume. The raw timbres of the Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra don’t suit the neo-Baroque textures of the First concerto as well as they do the more heavily scored later works, and there’s some unsteady ensemble in the very difficult Fourth concerto (the tenor drum player gets lost in the opening tutti, for example). On the other hand, the dryish sonics—though not always flattering to the piano or the orchestral strings—clarify some of Martinů’s more evocative instrumental combinations very effectively. The writing for harp and piano in the latter work, for example, has particular presence.

The music, of course, is wonderful, and astonishingly varied. In the Second concerto’s central Poco andante we find one of the loveliest tunes that Martinů ever wrote, while anyone who believes that tonality was “dead” in 1955 needs to hear the Fourth concerto (“Incantations”), one of the most original and striking 20th-century works in the medium. As previously, Giorgio Koukl plays extremely well, notwithstanding strong competition from Rudolf Firkusny in the Second and Fourth concertos, and Emil Leichner in the First. Although not the best, this nevertheless is very good, convenient, and reasonably priced.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group