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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Music

Etudes and Polkas - Books 1-3 (1945) [29.23]
Butterflies and Birds of Paradise () [15:21]
Seven Czech Dances () [12:14]
Paul Kaspar (piano)
rec. Bayerischen Rundfunk München, Studio 2, 14 Mar, 7 Apr, 22 Sept, 16 Dec 2003. DDD
TUDOR 7125 [57:13]

Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Music

Fantaisie et Toccata (1940) [16.26]
Three Czech Dances (1926) [8:15]
Dumka (1941) [2:03]
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1954) [19.05]
Fenêtre sur le Jardin (1938) [7:24]
Trois Esquisses (1927) [4:58]
Paul Kaspar (piano)
rec. Bayerischen Rundfunk München, Studio 2, July 1998, May, Sept 1999, Apr 2000. DDD
TUDOR 7054 [60:25]
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These are very recommendable recordings of much of Martinů's solo piano music. Kaspar lacks nothing in brilliance. He also has the imagination and digital dexterity to conjure that buoyant delight that only the finest Martinů adherents can find and project. His playing is sprightly and just at times relentless when we get to the more rapid of Martinů's inspirations. His piano i
s superbly recorded by Bavarian Radio.

In Butterflies and Birds of Paradise skills different from those demanded by the Etudes and Polkas are called for. Here Martinů's trademark melodies and harmonies make sport in a Debussian realm (Jardin sous la Pluie). Again Kaspar squares up to the composer's requirements. His Birds of Paradise over the Sea is pensive, elusive, voluptuously heroic (6.31), smilingly bell-like and optimistic. What is also notable here is Kaspar's attention to varying dynamics.

The Seven Czech Dances take us through the rustic gamut from arthritic smock-dance à la Shepherd Fennel to more gentle and subtle inspirations. It has to be admitted that the first three dances are pretty stiff (not Kaspar's fault) but things improve with the winsome ragtime-inflected Dance No. 4 which looks forward a decade and a half to the 1940s. In fact the last four are by far the most entertaining.

The angular Fantaisie and Toccata is given a hunted and desperate air reflecting the composer’s upheaval in having to leave Paris in turmoil. The Toccata is the more dissonant and nightmare-ridden of these conjoined pieces. These are roughly contemporary with the Etudes and Polkas but differs from them in the oppressive cloud-hung mien - something later picked up in the Third Symphony and Lidice Memorial.

The Three Czech Dances are from 1926. They sound faintly Joplinesque at times and Prokofiev-gawky at others. The winged brusque energy of the final Polka just occasionally looks forward twenty years to the mature symphonic Martinů of the Atlantic seaboard years.

The isolated Dumka from 1941 is Martinů full-fledged in pliant rhythmic life and in subtly-coloured harmony. There is something of the lullaby about it - something of childhood.

The Piano Sonata is his only one for the instrument. It was written in Nice where Martinů was staying in hope of a return to Czechoslovakia. Rudolf Serkin was the intended player. It is a strange piece which in this case fails to convince.

Fenêtre sur le Jardin is from 1938 and the Paris years. The four pieces are very short and all bear the imprint of later symphonic works as well as being completely convincing in their own right as piano solos in the French mode. They were written while the composer and his wife were staying at Vieux Moulin with Jan Zrzavny. The final allegretto has a lick or two of Prokofiev giving it a grotesque character.

Going back a decade further there are the Trois Esquisses from 1927. The Tempo di Blues is less a blues that a ragtime. Tempo di Tango is all dark clouds heavy with chilly raindrops. It's not really an approach toward Piazzolla. The Tempo di Charleston is a relentless cross between popular culture and Mussorgsky's Dance of the Unhatched Chicks.

There is no direct competition but Firkusný has a selection of these pieces in Artistes et Répertoires 74321 886 822. His sound is warmer. more gauzy and less tightly focused than Kaspar. He makes a better more convincing case for the problematic Sonata No. 1 but Kaspar is outstanding in the Etudes and Polkas even in the face of Firkusný’s seigneurial authority.

František Malý's piano recital on Panton 81 1426-2 131 is more generous in timing at [71.35]. It has the Fantaisie et Toccata, all three books of Etudes and Polkas and the Piano Sonata. His Fantaisie et Toccata is superior in imagination to Kaspar's and he is just as well recorded. Maly's attack is spot-on: really eager and alert. Maly's Etudes and Polkas are less well defined, characterised and recorded than Kaspar's but not by a very wide margin. The handsome sound accorded to the Kaspar recording no doubt magnifies all the other playing and psychological merits of these two Tudor discs. Maly is however a most perceptive and persuasive player and this is clear for example in the romantic haze of the Etude from book 3 (tr. 14).

Eleonora Bekova recorded the Sonata in 1997 for Chandos (CHAN 9655) and the sound of her piano is richer - presumably a factor of a superior instrument and the much warmer acoustic of the Maltings, Snape. The overlay of warmth is not entirely an advantage. Greater clarity and the absence of an ambient aura is preferable though Bekova's harried nightmare hunt in Fantaisie et Toccata is superior to Maly's. Emil Leichner recorded all the piano solo music and the piano concertos during the 1980s. They were issued by Supraphon on 11 1010-2 - a 3 CD set running to almost three hours and twenty minutes. Leichner is very good indeed and an excellent all-round choice. He has all the necessary digital skills and an imaginative dimension that makes a vivid impression. He is not recorded as sweetly nor with such immediacy as Kaspar but his readings are essential listening for any Martinů fan. He also makes hay with the recalcitrant Sonata with its tendency to belligerence and disillusion.

What goes somewhat against the two discs is their comparatively short playing time of just over and just under an hour.

Both discs have their booklet covers adorned with dreamily surreal paintings by Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977), a much longer-lived friend and contemporary of Martinů. They are from the period 1908-1913.

Overall this Tudor pair represents some of the best recorded and performed Martinů. It might well take a lot of effort to run these Tudor discs to ground but if you hold a torch for Martinů on the piano then seek out these discs as a primus inter pares companion to the Leichner box and Maly disc.

Rob Barnett

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