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CD Review

Bohuslav Martinů

Piano Concertos, Volume 2

  • Piano Concerto #1 in D Major, H. 149
  • Piano Concerto #2, H. 237
  • Piano Concerto #4 "Incantation", H. 358
Giorgio Koukl, piano
Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra, Zlin/Arthur Fagen
Naxos 8.572373 74:45
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Three winners.

Paul Hindemith wrote 19 concerti, with the ambition of providing one for every standard instrument in the orchestra. He didn't quite make it. Martinů, far less systematically encyclopedic, wrote at least 25, mostly for standard combinations. Music just poured out of him. Oddballs include concerti for string quartet, piano trio, two violins, flute and violin, two pianos, and harpsichord. For me, the concerti and the chamber music lie at the center of his output. He had a sure dramatic sense. His concerti propel the listener like no others, except Beethoven's. Does this mean that a Martinů concerto stands with a Beethoven, a Mozart, or a Brahms? I have no idea, since I can't easily distinguish fine gradations of Goodness (or comparatively gross ones, for that matter). I can say, however, that every time I prepare to listen to a Martinů concerto, I feel like a kid about to unwrap a Christmas present.

Martinů produced five piano concerti – in the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, one per decade, and in the Fifties, two. Thus, they capture all of his stylistic modes except for the very earliest Impressionist period. Naxos has recorded all five with these forces. Numbers 3 and 5 appear on 8.572206 (reviewed by Robert Cummings). That volume also includes the Piano Concertino.

Critics routinely rap Martinů's knuckles for his huge output. Not everything in his catalogue is top-drawer. Why they knock Martinů for this and not, say, Beethoven, Mozart, or Brahms puzzles me. In my opinion, they simply blow smoke to hide their unwillingness to engage. For example, many reviewers have deemed the Fourth Concerto the best of the five. My critical receptors don't distinguish so finely. To insist on a "best" makes as much sense to me as trying to determine the best Beethoven piano concerto. Even if you could establish a reasonable ranking, does that turn the bottom four to trash? At any rate, 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. Although I consider Martinů came into his own in the early Thirties, I find sports that predict later developments in his work. The gestures are neo-Baroque, Bachian – the "new classicism" also seen in the Hindemith Kammermusiken. 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. The perky opening movement works a rhythm (2 16ths on an upbeat, followed by an eighth on the down) and a three-note cell (do-ti do) that pop up in a lot of Martinů's scores, although seldom the in the same way. 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. Martinů develops the lyrical bit, gradually introducing the material of the opening – first rhythmically – as it builds in intensity. A sudden hush, and the piano begins a fugato on the main theme over a pedal in the high strings and an imitative passage on the three-note cell which leads to the reprise of the opening material and the lyrical bit.

The second movement opens in quiet triple-time, like a siciliana, mainly with strings and oboe. The piano gets a bit of space to itself and then joins with the orchestra. Thematically, the orchestra takes the lead and most of the exposition. The piano confines itself to decoration and solo commentary. The three-note cell becomes increasingly prominent, especially in the elaborate cadenza, where the siciliana transforms into a chorale. The beginning of the movement returns, the orchestra and the soloist taking turns with the siciliana theme.

The finale evokes pure joy, with the three-note cell slowed down, providing punctuation to the ecstatic runs. This movement dances the polka in triple time and reminds us that Martinů writes not solely as a Modernist, but as a Czech Modernist. It sounds like Smetana streamlined, particularly in the lyrical big tunes that contrast with the tootles and skips.

As I say, I have no way to determine Martinů's best piano concerto, but I do call #2 my favorite. Written in 1934, early in the period in which Martinů found his artistic self, oddly enough it shows the influence of Brahms, of all people. Martinů, of course, had written wonderful work in the Twenties, but in the next decade he kicks into a higher gear. The first concerto in itself has nothing to apologize for, but compared to the second, it's a bit contained. Other Martinů works of the period can even seem cramped and confined. With the first notes of the second concerto, however, one feels wide vistas opening up, à la the composer's works of the Forties. 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, although the piano gets most of the spotlight. One also hears a Beethoven "inevitability" to the argument. Previously, Martinů uses mainly propulsive rhythms to drive a movement along. Here, he adds logical thematic progression. One notices no joins from one section to the next. Instead, one passage transforms into another, related passage.

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. Some writers criticize Martinů for this, but I find plenty of the composer's typical melodic manipulations – side-slipping chords, plagal cadences (in the key of C, F to C), emphasis on different, though related, three-note cells, and so on. The theme begins modestly and grows richer as the movement proceeds. With the recap, we return to the tranquility of the opening.

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 (three-note cell prominent) gains intensity as it proceeds. Both subject groups are developed in surprising ways. The concerto comes to a confident end, just the cue an audience needs to clap its hands red.

Concerto #4 gets the most favorable ink of the five. Why, I can't tell you. Not that it's dreck, but I don't really see the quality difference between it and the other four. It does have the most unusual structure – two large movements, as opposed to the classical three or four. On the other hand, the interplay between piano and orchestra, at least in the first movement, follows conventional lines. A wonderful "suspended" opening typifies Martinů's late period, when he began to admit Impressionist elements into his music again. Its language has much in common with the 3 Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Again, the melodies consist largely of, once again, 3-note cells, insisted upon and varied. Perhaps it is this last element that explains the concerto's subtitle, "Incantations," which has mystified commentators. Martinů offered an explanation, so general that it could apply to just about any piece of good music. Perhaps Martinů's worrying his 3-note melodic Legos inspired the composer to the subtitle. However, we note this melodic construction in most of his work. It's practically a genome of his music. 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, heavily chordal and declamatory just before the recapitulation.

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 – indeed, throughout the concerto – brought about by ingenious pedal points. This leads to orchestral recitative – perhaps another "incantation" – and then to a duet between solo piano and harp. Gradually, Martinů begins to gather up his argumentative threads and the movement requires a strong sense of forward movement, although at a moderate tempo and a conversational dynamic. The interplay between soloist and ensemble mainly takes place either at the chamber level or separately, in alternation. The first measures of the concerto briefly reappears, setting in motion a passage to yet another piano cadenza. Essentially, one pedal point leads to another, even in passages with motor-like rhythms. This could become very boring, but Martinů avoids the trap and achieves grandeur instead. If we can call music profound, I think we can apply the label to this concerto.

Giorgio Koukl (a Czech who fled to Italy around the time of the Russian invasion in 1968) has the reputation of a leading Martinů player. He studied with the composer's friend, Rudolf Firkušný, among others. I generally like his playing, although at times in the quick parts I find he puts a rather hard edge on the music. Firkušný, who recorded concertos 2, 3, and 4 (RCA/BMG 09026-61934-2; not currently available, naturally) with Libor Pešek and the Czech Philharmonic, manages to highlight the music's charm as well as its depths and thus presents a more rounded portrait of the composer. However, you usually don't go wrong in Martinů with Czech performers. American conductor Arthur Fagen also has the idiom and accommodates Koukl. 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.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.