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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Music for solo piano (CD1)

Les Ritournelles (1932)
Fantaisie et Toccata (1954)
Sonata No. 1 (1954)
Julietta (1939)
Etudes et Polkas (1945)
Piano Concertos (CD2)

Piano Concerto No. 2 (1934)
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1948)
Piano Concerto No. 4 (1956)
Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994) (piano)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pešek
Rec. 1988 (solo piano), 1993 (concertos)
RCA RED SEAL ARTISTES ET REPERTOIRES 74321 886 822 [2CDs: 58.37+68.47]


Rudolf Firkušný was born in Napajedla, Moravia on 11 February 1912. From 1917 to 1927 he studied with Leoš Janáček. Further studies at the Prague Academy of Music were with Vilem Kurz (who famously edited the Dvořák piano concerto) and Josef Suk. His friendship with Janáček was the entrée to meeting President Masaryk who financially supported the young pianist through his years of study in Prague and beyond. His first recital was in Prague at the age of 8. He was playing Mozart's Coronation Concerto at 10. As the 1920s and 1930s unfolded he performed throughout Europe. His American debut came in 1938 in New York. Firkušný showed special loyalty to the works of Kvapil, Moyzes and Borkovec. Martinů’s music was close to his heart. Firkušný and Martinů first met in Paris in 1931 where their friendship was consiolidated through the flight from the Nazis to their refugee arrival in New York. It was 44 years and the departure of communism before Firkušný would perform in his homeland again. He played Martinů's Second Piano Concerto at the Prague Spring Music Festival on his return in 1990.

The present set makes for a very welcome return to the catalogue. Few if any have greater authority than Firkušný in this music which, on one disc, addresses the principal works for solo piano and on the other has three concertos either written for or premiered by him.

The Second Piano Concerto is spry and athletic sporting apparel from Martinů's then heroes - Debussy and Ravel. The frictionless, silvery grace of the poco andante gives way to a flood of machine gun motoric neo-classical pianola pattering from soloist and orchestra something of the type to be found in Stravinsky's Concerto for piano and woodwind. This works because Martinů opens up the dehydrated pores with Czech national yearning motifs (as in tr.3 4.30). The Leichner sounds a mite oxygen depleted by the side of Firkušný's two recordings with Bĕlohlávek on Supraphon SU-1988-2 031 and Firkušný's final recording on this set.


Incantation is more modern than you might have expected from Martinů. The recently reissued 1968 Palenicek recording on bargain price Apex outdoes the comparatively airless and brittle recording by Klara Havlikova on Campion RRCD1321 (coupled with the Fifth Concerto and the Harpsichord Concerto). In fact it runs the Firkušný pretty close as well. Firkušný, for all his years, produces a vital recording eager to put across the many unusual angles to this work. Leichner and Bĕlohlávek in their complete Supraphon set of the piano concertos do not have quite the convulsive spit and fire of Palenicek (Apex 0927 49822 2) or Firkušný (RCA-BMG). When Martinů heard Firkušný play this concerto in 1957 he said the piece "expressed a neverending quest for truth and the meaning of life as well as a tribute to music, musician's sanctuary, his power and weapon."

The big Third Concerto goes well in Leichner's and Bĕlohlávek's hands and they make more of the Brahms reminiscences than Firkušný and Pešek. There is nothing amiss with the Firkušný reading but it is just that things go with a noticeably more natural flow. The supernatural eerie-ness of the second movement is well caught as in the finale is the collision between the neo-classical angularity, the airy nationalistic buoyancy of the Fourth Symphony and the crowded field of Brahmsian (third and fourth symphonies) and Beethovenian allusions.

The solo piano music disc includes the irritable baroquery of the Ritournelles (classic Parisian years material) - hectic, heartless motoric brevities played for all they are worth. The Fantaisie and Toccata is resplendent with verve and effervescence characteristic of Martinů’s 1940s zenith. This is not quite up to the wonderful Toccata e Due Canzoni standard (try the Zdenek Hnat version on a Supraphon LP - long in need of reissue). The Piano Sonata is late Martinů written within five years of his death. It is wild, angular and awkward - not at all the work of a tired old man. This has more of the rebellious spirit of 1920s Cowell, Ornstein and Ruggles about it than anything else. Finally the nine Etudes and Polkas from 1945 in Firkušný's practised hands encompass the full range from hectic mitrailleuse impacts to rural idyll to hayseed barn-dance with the straw crunching beneath your feet.

The Artistes + Répertoires series has come in for a real drubbing from some of the site's critics. Some of them deprecate the cardboard double-fold sleeve and others rail against the brevity of the notes. The collage and graffiti style design is odd-ball, I'll grant you and some of it is too difficult to read because of idiosyncratic design choices but why get on your high horses? Until this set (a bargain price twofer) came along these two discs had been long deleted. I for one am simply delighted to see these fine performances returning to the catalogue at a price that is far more accessible to the general collector and to students than the original releases ever were. We too easily forget issues of social inclusion and if part of the cost of getting these discs in circulation at bargain basement prices is losing the highly detailed notes then I can live with that. On top of which what is the problem with card sleeves? That is what we had for LPs and they can take up less space than jewel boxes - CD for CD. The other dimension (leaving aside the disc itself) is ecological. Ultimately cardboard will degrade more easily than a plastic jewel box. When the next major audio carrier comes along, and after the second-hand market has been exhausted, we need to know that as much as possible of those sets discarded in landfill in 2050 along with useless LPs will bio-degrade rather than leave humanity with a plastic legacy. I just wish this had been a three CD set and then we could have added the Starker/Firkušný versions of the three cello sonatas on RCA 09026 61220 2).

While some critics are sharpening their sabres or choosing their most beloved cudgel with which to belabour BMG the rest of you with any interest in Martinů should snap up this outstanding bargain. Not so very long ago, when first issued, these two discs were at premium price. Then they disappeared under the deleter's axe. Now you can again hear these radiant performances by one of Martinů's constant champions and closest confidantes. Do listen to this music nurtured in sunlight and dewy with nostalgic nationalism. The music's the thing!

Rob Barnett



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