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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Piano Works and Drawings

  • Etudes and Polkas (H. 308)
  • Butterflies and Birds of Paradise (H. 127)
  • Sonata for Piano (H. 350)
  • Album Leaf #1 (H. 222)
  • Borová (H. 195)
  • Black Bottom (H. 165)
  • Victorious March of the R.U.R. Sports Club of Polička (H. 129)
Michal Mašek, piano
EMI Classics/Morpheus Art 09990-26916-2 65m
Find it at Amazon

This is a most unusual release: a book of sketches by composer Bohuslav Martinů that also houses, as its main offering, a CD of a collection of the composer's solo piano works. I wasn't aware of Martinů's other artistic side, but apparently only a few people ever were. His sketches, or caricatures, are generally humorous, with many pertaining to activity on the concert stage. The piano works on the CD, with the exception of the sonata (H. 350), are infrequently performed. The sonata has a dozen or more listings in the catalog and thus does have some currency, though most listeners with an interest in 20th-century piano music are probably not familiar with it, either.

While Martinů's piano concertos have gained a measure of notice in the last couple of decades, his solo piano works in general are largely unknown, despite the generally high quality of many of them. Why? In part, it is because Martinů wrote so much music. Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, the fellow behind the "H" in the cataloguing of Martinů's works, came up with almost four hundred numbered compositions. And keep in mind that collections like the leadoff group of nine pieces on this CD, Etudes and Polkas, receives a single "H" number. Thus, if one were to count all pieces as single works, Martinů may very well have written a thousand or more compositions, including big works like operas (16), ballets (15), concertos and concertante works (17), and symphonies (6). With an output like that, one might observe that Martinů's own music goes into competition with itself.

But there is another reason why his solo piano music is still largely neglected: even his best compositions would have to vye for elbow room with the music of Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev, many of whose works are firmly ensconced in the repertory of 20th-century piano music. Martinů could write attractive, well crafted music for the piano, but he rarely invested his works with catchy melodies, as those four so often did. And he rarely produced music with the dynamism and rhythmic drive of Prokofiev or the vivid imagery and nuances of Debussy. Martinů's skills in piano composition could be compared with the more modest and less showy ones of Bartók and Hindemith, though his style was completely different from theirs. While Martinů wasn't a great pianist, he fully understood the piano and could write colorful, spirited and masterly scores of wide appeal.

The Etudes and Polkas are a splendid collection of short pieces that are light in mood, but quite substantive in yield. They express many moods and feelings, moving from the dreamy and restless (Etude in D) to the sedate and stately (Polka in A), and on to the spirited and bright (Etude in A) and then to the quirky and breathless (Etude in C). Every piece here commands your attention, and overall the collection is quite a compelling assemblage.

The Butterflies and Birds of Paradise is comprised of three pieces of slightly greater expressive weight. Inspired by paintings of Czech artist Max Svabinsky, the music is somewhat Impressionistic and less vigorous in character than the Etudes and Polkas. There are many moments of beauty here, and while there may be a debt to Debussy, the music is nevertheless rewarding.

The Sonata is without doubt the most substantive piece on this CD. Written for pianist Rudolf Serkin, it is darker, grittier and more complex than the other works in this album. The first movement (Poco Allegro) is stormy and dramatic, and reaches a serene and quite profound ending. The middle movement (Moderato) begins with trills and much tension and agitation, but then struggles to maintain a sense of serenity. The middle section roils but eventually gives way to that queasy, unstable sense of serenity. The finale (Adagio, Poco Allegro) begins tentatively, but then the music hops about as if in search of something. It finds its target: the mood turns bright and festive, but not without a suggestion of playful menace. The work closes gloriously. The three short encores are attractive, especially the lively middle one, Borova. The bonus track, Victorious March, is a boisterous, colorful piece of comical mastery.

How are the performances, you ask? Pianist Michal Mašek goes into competition with such stawarts as Rudolf Firkušný and Georgio Koukl, the latter having recently recorded all the solo piano music and piano concertos of Martinů for Naxos. Mašek fully understands Martinů and can hold his own against the formidable competition in these works. He plays Martinů with a knowing sense, with a grasp of the composer's distinctive idiom that is fully convincing. His technique is formidable and his tempos, dynamics, and interpretive sense are masterly. He ought to record the remainder of Martinů's solo output, as well as the concertos. Moreover, I would like to hear Mašek in some Debussy and Prokofiev, composers I believe his style would be well suited to. But he is also quite versatile: he has already recorded the Bach Goldberg Variations and Beethoven "Emperor" Piano Concerto with considerable success. By the way, there is a video on YouTube, in which Mašek explains his work on this project.

The sound on this CD is excellent, and as for the art work, I am no expert, but I can say that Martinů's drawings are certainly interesting and should offer insight into his personality, especially the humorous side of it. This release is a co-production of EMI and Morpheus Art, a company founded and managed by pianist Michal Mašek. Highly recommended!

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Cummings.