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CD REVIEW



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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 3
Etudes and Polkas (1945): Book I (H.380/1) [12:02]; Book II (H.308/2) [9:45]; Book III (H.308/3) [10:42]
Sonata No.1 (1954) (H.350) [21:06]
Fantasie et Toccata (1940) (H.281) [16:53]
Trois Danses Tcheques (1926) (H.154) [9:26]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. RSI Lugano, January and April 2006 
NAXOS 8.557919 [79:54]

The third volume of Giorgio Koukl’s survey of Martinů’s piano music is as successful as the previous two. In my review of the second disc of the series I described some of the differences between Koukl’s approach and that of Emil Leichner, whose Supraphon set of the piano music (not quite the complete piano music) has been something of a benchmark set for many years now. Koukl tends to etch rhythms with greater incision and Leichner tends to a greater sense of reflectiveness. This is certainly a crudely suggestive way of approaching these two important readings of the piano music but for the purposes of this review it does indicate the divergences of approach that both men bring to bear. It may also help direct you if you wish to follow one or the other – though of course there are a number of other discs by other pianists worthy of note.

The Sonata is the most important work here. Koukl is sensitive to the Poco allegro marking here whilst Leichner prefers to emphasise the Allegro rather at the expense of the poco. I suspect this is to mitigate what Leichner may have detected as structural problems and to vest the opening with a powerful drive so as to balance the concluding Adagio. Leichner certainly makes the most of the contrasts here, despite the relative speed, and though his overall timing is very similar to Koukl’s the distribution amongst the three individual movements is very different. Though Leichner manages to find light and shade in his opening movement Koukl’s greater deliberation pays dividends. And he finds just the right sense of starkness and deliberation in that powerful Adagio finale which he plays with gravity and singular intensity.

The depth of Koukl’s bass is palpable in the Fantasie et Toccata. Its immediacy is arresting and stresses the abrupt dynamism of the writing. Koukl’s playing here locates the imperturbable violence and threat in the writing – it was written in 1940 after all. This is a more intensive and tensile approach than Leichner’s rather more skittish neo-classicism, though one wouldn’t want to underestimate Leichner’s determined commitment to the bellicose writing.  Koukl certainly brings the edginess and brittle attacks of the Toccata very much to the fore. This is valiant and perceptive playing indeed, emphasised by the very immediate nature of the studio recording.

After these two powerful and important statements we turn to the Etudes and Polkas – lighter fare written in 1945. These brief and expert pieces – none lasting longer than three minutes - bring out Koukl’s instinct for rhythmic vivacity and alluring tone. As one might expect he’s generally – not always but usually – faster than Leichner and this brings advantages in terms of terpsichorean vitality. Curiously Leichner feels the Pastorale of the First Volume rather faster than Koukl – I thought it would be the other way around. The three Czech Dances round off the programme and Koukl, Prague born, knows all about them. He can do the Obkročák with the best of them.

Interpretative excellence once again from Koukl - and so volume four is awaited with anticipation.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 


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