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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Concerto No. 3 H316 (1947-48) [28.21]
Bouquet of Flowers - A Cycle of Compositions to Folk Texts for Mixed and Children's Choirs, soli and small orchestra H260 (1937) [47.39]
Josef Palenicek (piano)
Libuše Domanínská (sop)
Sona Cervena (alto)
Lubomir Havlak (ten)
Ladislav Mraz (bass)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Kuhn's Children's Choir/Jan Kuhn
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
rec. stereo (concerto); mono (Flowers). Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague. ADD

Karel Ančerl Gold Edition Vol. 12
SUPRAPHON SU3672-2 901 [76.13]

Here are two works written either side of the great divide that was the Second World War. This war uprooted both conductor and composer. Both moved to America, Martinů immediately and Ancerl eventually to Canada. Ancerl's flight from Czechoslovakia saved his life. The rest of his family were victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Ancerl returned to his homeland after the war; tragically Martinů never did.

The Third Concerto is brilliantly played here by Palenicek but aside from some moments in the final movement the work fails to move. You can hear Beethoven in some of Martinů's symphonies especially No. 5. Well in this case one can hear Brahms. The work's hair-trigger anxiety and motoric drive have excitement but things do not ignite at the level of emotional engagement. The Second Concerto was premiered on 20 November 1948 at Dallas with Dorati conducting and Firkusný as soloist. The Czech premiere was delayed by political machinations until nine years later.

Both Leichner (Supraphon complete piano concertos) and Firkusný (BMG) sound better in their competing versions. Overall though it is the Firkusný that merits first recommendation. It is an added bonus that you can now get Firkusný's versions of both concertos as part of a bargain price twofer on the ‘Arts and References’ French BMG series.

The big concerto goes well in Leichner's and Belohlavek's hands. They make more of the Brahms reminiscences than Firkusný and Pesek or Palenicek and Ancerl. There is nothing amiss with the Firkusný reading; it is just that things go with an even more natural flow with Leichner. The supernatural eerieness of the second movement is well caught. In the finale there is the collision between the neo-classical angularity, the airy nationalistic buoyancy of the Fourth Symphony and a crowded host of Brahmsian allusions.

Karl Erben's grim folk tales fuelled Dvořák's The Spectre's Bride and the late tetralogy of tone poems which includes The Noonday Witch and The Water Goblin. The Bouquet of Flowers sets more Erben. It is in two parts and eight sections. The setting is highly spiced with solos for the voices, unison choral textures which are often folk-naïf. The orchestral role includes a prominent part for the solo piano. The sequence runs a full three quarters of an hour and is pleasing but undemanding. One can imagine this as a sort of Czech analogue for Vaughan Williams' First Nowell though without an orator or perhaps closer to VW's Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. Martinů even sounds like his counterpart towards the end of His Kind Sweetheart (tr.9). Martinů this in 1937 dedicating it to the painter Jan Zrzavy. It was premiered on Prague Radio conducted by Otakar Jeremias. The composer never heard the work in any other form than as a crackly radio relay. The folk texts are printed in full in the booklet alongside a parallel English translation. Folk voices were intruding into or adding ruddy life to other music at the time including Canteloube's Auvergne songs and the various cycles by Karol Szymanowski, Vitezlav Novak and Czeslaw Marek. The style of these four composers Martinů avoids completely. Martinů's music is less synthesised or subject to impressionistic treatment. The singing strings of Idyll and bubbling and warbling woodwind tap a vein that Martinů remained in touch with. This style was used all the way through to the mid-late 1940s when an opulent impressionism started to gain the ascendancy. A Carol flies along in a Carmina-like chatter from the well drilled children's chorus. The final movement, all 13.42 of it, is Man and Death - a dialogue between the rich old farmer tramping among his crops in high harvest and meeting Death. He argues with Death with one excuse after another for being spared. Finally Death loses patience and shoots an arrow through his heart. The sung words implore us to remember that Death is pitiless and to prepare for it now. There is a Medieval Dürer-like grimness about this. Things are not allowed to end on an upbeat even if Martinů does allow some contentment to soften and sweeten the final pages as if a Requiescat in Pace. This folk sequence was last issued by Supraphon on 11 1932-2901.

Supraphon are repackaging their Martinů Ančerl legacy. Volume 34 (SU 3694-2) will give us the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies along with the Lidice Memorial but has not been issued as yet (December 2003).

Summary: A concerto played brilliantly but overall being rather severe. A disarming folk serenade acting as a lode from which the style of many later works was drawn.

Rob Barnett


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