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.
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
vol. 2 RRC1173
Fibich RRC 1221
vol. 1 RRC1223
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).
Quatre Mouvements are dedicated
to Milos Safranek, Czech ambassador
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
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
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
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.