Behlolávek before he became a hot property for
Chandos. Definitely worth experiencing and all the more so because the
recording is in modern sound.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is actually Martinu's
first for piano with full orchestra. The one designated number 1 is
a work from 1925 with chamber ensemble. The Second was dedicated to
Germaine Leroux but was premiered in 1935 by Firkusny who was the dedicatee
of the Third Concerto. It is a work of unoppressive flighty innocence.
Its fluent runs and rolls and active orchestral web are suggestive of
Prokofiev at times and Poulenc at others. The brilliance of the John
Ireland concerto also occurred to me. The second of the three movements
combines a yearning character with a lean textured approach. Firkusny
despatches the solo part to the manner born. In 1990 he performed this
work at the Prague Spring Festival on his return to a homeland freed
from no-choice communism. His recording made at the Rudolfinum in June
1993 and issued as a Firkusny tribute by BMG in 1994 is to be marginally
preferred for a richer recording. He played the world premieres of Martinu's
second, third and fourth piano concertos all of which were written for
him. They are coupled on BMG 09026 61934 2. In the BMG version the Firkusny
dwells on the middle movement for almost a full minute longer than the
Supraphon. Behlolávek had recorded the second in company with
the Piano Concertino and the four other concertos in 1986 and 1989.
In this case the pianist was Emil Leichner who took an even more leisurely
pace in all three movements. The pastoral Beethovenian-Brahmsian element
is much more to the fore in Leichner's hands. The resilient music carries
all these differing approaches.
The Estampes (or Engravings) date from
1958 and begin in Webern-like indeterminacy, clicking and pecking. The
programme notes hazard a connection with Debussy's piano suite of the
same name and there is an impressionistic and experimental air to this
music which reads like a sketchbook for Martinu's exploration of how
seemingly alien techniques could be bent and melded to his inspiration.
Played innocent ear style to someone familiar with the style it would
soon enough be recognised as Martinu but there are many passages which
strain at the edges of what we expect from the man from the Policka
church tower. He was alive to the need for renewal even in older age.
The Adagio with its half hiccoughing half dancing ostinato is
well worth your attention with an oboe dancing in drenched Provençal
warmth. The harp, mandolin and guitar evocations of the Poco Allegro
suggest familiarity with Copland. Not at all surprising given Martinu's
locale. While lacking in compulsive melodious invention - except in
the wonderful Adagio movement - this work is one to be treasured.
Its experimentation rings familiar bells with the mysteries of Gilgamesh.
The Parables were written in the same
year as the Estampes and are instantly recognisable as prime
Martinu. These effervesce and rush in an access of delight taking in,
along the way, the tenderness of Copland. While the 'winds of war' chill
the second Parable the third and final movement recaptures the dynamic
force that lifts and floods so much of his best music. The mezza voce
tense shrieking of the strings recalls the hair-raising supernatural
elements in Gilgamesh. The music glows as it should in Behlolávek
's hands but even more compelling for its Sibelian edginess and energy
and devastating whooping horns is the 1961 stereo version conducted
by Ancerl on Supraphon 11 1931 2 001 coupled with Ancerl's mono Fifth
and Lidice and the stereo Frescoes. That Ancerl is a prime
disc belonging in any core Martinö
collection. The Parables also appear on Panton 81 1204-2 but
they are taken in such a somnolent way that I could not recommend them.
The other work from the 1930s is the Tre Ricercari
for chamber orchestra. It was commissioned for the International
Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice where it was accorded its premiere.
It is a delicate translucent concerto grosso with, typically, a central
role for the piano - two in fact. The orchestra comprises five woodwind,
two trumpets, six strings. This has less of the restlessness of the
second piano concerto and more of the light-suffused warmth of the later
works. The woodwind writing shows lessons learnt from Stravinsky but
with a more vulnerable humane face. It steers away from the darkness
of the exactly contemporary Double Concerto. This is more in the nature
of a sincere sophisticated serenade-cassation than an exploration of
the germs of an impending personal and political tragedy. It has been
issued before by Supraphon (11 0381-2) with the Sinfonia Concertante
and the Concerto Grosso though the playing time was only 49.20. That
issue did however feature the most heart-warming colour photo of Martinu
and his wife. The pianists are Josef Ruzicka and Jaroslav Saroun. I
have been able to compare two other recordings. The over-warmly cocooned
version with James Conlon conducting the Orchestre National de France
(pianists: Jean-François Heisser and Alain Planès) is
a very decent performance and should be snapped up especially in the
cheap Erato Warner Ultima 'twofer' series. Its number is 3984 24238
2. Currently unavailable but well worth transferring from LP is the
Turnovsky version on the same 1960s Supraphon LP as the best ever version
of the Fourth Symphony - SUAST 50669. Turnovsky's ambience is drier
than Conlon's but their speeds are very similar. The Conlon and Turnovsky
are to be preferred to Behlolávek 's drowsier pacing though his
is the richer recording.