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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Tri České tance (Three Czech Dances) (1926) [8:39]
Borová (Seven Czech Dances) (1929-30) [12:24]
Quatre Mouvements (1929) [7:19]
Skici (Esquisses) (1931) [11:39]
Hry (Esquisses) (1931) [11:22]
Ritornely (Les Ritournelles) (1933) [11:35]
Okna do zahrady (Fenętre sur le jardin) (1938) [8:19]
Radoslav Kvapil (piano)
rec. Studio Domovina, Prague, May 1991. DDD
originally issued on Unicorn-Kanchana, 1991.
REGIS RRC 1222 [73:12]

 

 

Radoslav Kvapil has been a name to conjure with since I first had an interest in classical music in the early 1970s. My first experience of him was hearing a broadcast of the Dvořák Piano Concerto in which he was soloist.

Between 1993 and 1996 he recorded for Unicorn eight CDs to form an Anthology of Czech Music. There were one each for Dvořák, Martinů, Vorisek, Fibich, Janáček and Suk as well as two for Smetana. All have now been reissued at bargain price by Regis individually as:

Dvořák RRC1171
Janáček RRC1172
Smetana vol. 2 RRC1173
Suk RRC1174
Fibich RRC 1221
Martinů RRC 1222
Smetana vol. 1 RRC1223
Vorisek RRC1224

or in two sets:
RRC 4005 (4CDset) containing RRC 1171-1174
RRC 4006 (4CDset) containing RRC 1221-1224


The present Martinů volume has the bargain price arena to itself. It is self-recommending given that Kvapil is never less than competent.

In total we hear 36 tracks or individual works across 73:12; an average of two minutes for each piece. The three dozen pieces are grouped in seven collections written between 1926 and 1938 just short of a major turn of the page for Martinů. The longest piece here is 3:03; the shortest 1:02. In broadly chronological order, here are the piano miniatures he wrote during his years in the artistic ferment of 1930s Paris.

His individuality is marked out in the savour of the little discords and disharmonies he builds around these affectionately viewed remembrances of the Czechoslovakian villages, fields and forests. Martinů clangs and charms, serenades and stamps his way through the cultural mulch he later transformed into the grandest of his concert works: the six symphonies and the mature concertos. The jazziness of cafe and club life is also touched on as in the third of the seven Czech Dances - Borová.  Music-hall brashness enters the Dupak of the Three Czech Dances dating from Martinů's friendship with Marcel Mihalovici, Conrad Beck and Tibor Harsanyi. A cosmopolitan voice, to be heard from time to time, is that of Stravinsky's Petrushka; it is certainly there in the Easter Fair thud of the final moderato of Borová (tr. 10).

The Quatre Mouvements are dedicated to Milos Safranek, Czech ambassador in Paris at the time and later to be Martinů's biographer. These are sometimes stonily zany and humorous as in the case of the first Allegro (tr. 12). Otherwise these pieces are more subtle and suggestive: more Ravel than Smetana. Martinů achieves considerable sonorous grandeur in the adagio (tr. 13). The Skici include a ragtime (tr. 16) that transcends Joplin and with a richer creative mind clearly engaged. The poco andantino (tr. 18) of Skici is a gentler creature, closer to Debussy in its impressionistic repose. There are scorch marks of dissonance around the penultimate Allegro (tr. 19) before we get another one, this time manic and grotesque and then seemingly gripped for a few moments by a French provincial song.

The Six Hri (also translated as Esquisses) also include motoric ragtime (tr. 21), a heavy-shod Easter Fair dance (tr. 22), a vignette of liquid movement (tr. 23) and a final good-hearted four-square trudging dance (tr. 26). The Ritournelles of 1933 were premiered by a life-long Martinů champion, Rudolf Firkusný.  There are fewer baroque references here than the title might suggest. In fact in the second one (tr. 28) Martinů foxes us by feinting towards Bach and then lunging outwards in a display that touches on fractured ragtime, Stravinsky and impressionism. The intermezzo (tr. 29) is a touching exercise in carillon, slowed and savoured. In the final Allegro vivo of Ritornelli after a couple of dark chords Martinů unleashes a flood of cubist bells, melted and meshed with ragtime (tr. 32) before ending in perfectly resolved peace. This is the track to sample.

Fenętre sur le jardin was written the year after Martinů’s final visit to Czechoslovakia. Here we encounter for the first time the signature of themes and cells later to proclaim Martinů's identity in the symphonies. The poco andante combines peace with melancholy but you could say that also of the moderato (tr. 35). Martinů resorts to a fascinating gawky spider-legged angularity for the final allegretto (tr. 36).

These 36 pieces are fascinating, charming and often delectable. If some are indebted to other masters it is intriguing to see Martinů developing in front of our ears. 

Kvapil plays a Steinway concert grand. He is recorded pretty closely but there is no distortion and the sound is deeply satisfying.

What of the competition? There is comparatively little at this price and no collection cuts the cross-section in quite the way Kvapil and Unicorn did. All the others mix grander works with miniatures: Bekova (Chandos), Malý (Panton), Firkusný (BMG double) and Kaspar (Tudor). Erik Entwistle on Summit is in a class of his own with so much previously unrecorded Martinů. Leichner on Supraphon gives us much of the solo piano music.

This disc is great value and presents the Martinů of the vivacious Parisian years in a warm, sunny light. The performances are honed to subtlety and satisfaction by one of the great statesmen of the Czech piano school.

Rob Barnett

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