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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Sinfonietta La Jolla for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, H328 (1950) [19:32]
Toccata e due canzoni for small orchestra, H311 (1946) [24:49] 
Concerto Grosso for Chamber Orchestra, H263 (1937) [14:48] 
Josef Hála (piano) (all works); Petr Jiříkovský (piano) (H263)
Prague Chamber Orchestra/Ondřej Kukal
rec. Domovina Studio, 11-12, 19-20 May, 6 June 1997. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU39582 [59:29]


Experience Classicsonline

While the Concerto Grosso of 1937 is a product of the Parisian years this collection speaks overall of his masterly American period. It has the sound of the piano as a thread running through all three works.

The Concerto Grosso may have been written in Paris but it shakes off the neo-classical malaise that had begun to seep into the composer’s bones. It has some of that Parisian DNA but something else is going on too. It is rather ‘modern’ baroque certainly but in the outer movements it fizzes, steams, wheezes and shudders in this performance with a fearfully impressive zest. It is like some Jules Verne-ian cast iron engine hissing and straining at the floor bolts. Especially in the finale one is reminded of the wilder, juicier Stravinsky of Tango or Ragtime. This contrasts nicely with the miasmic wasteland ambivalence of the Adagio. Hála and Jiříkovský are the two pianists. The Concerto Grosso was premiered in Boston and acted as Martinů’s passport to acceptance, acclaim and commissions in his New World. 

Kukal’s is the most successful recorded version of the Sinfonietta La Jolla I have ever heard. It dates from the year after the Fourth Symphony – the finest of the Six. In fact it once shared an LP with the Fourth – EMI ASD 3888 (RLPO/Walter Weller). That LP never made it to CD but Weller re-recorded the symphony – and rather brilliantly – for Fuga Libera. The air breathed by La Jolla has the same life-enhancing richness and nervy-delectable oxygen as the Fourth Symphony. The sprung ecstasy of the first and final movements of the Sinfonietta takes on a triumphant surge in the finale. There is a lyrically pacific Largo. 

The Toccata e due canzoni is deeply impressive and is heard here in a performance to match. The Toccata is all humming-tension and active ambivalence: cycling between threat and power, despair and joy. Canzone I is memorable for that same grip and for its classic tight bell-obsessive carillon from the piano. That carillon, once heard, haunts you as much as the ostinato from Nightride and Sunrise. In the pregnant piano figure Hála is, as I recall, quicker than Hnat who is to be preferred very slightly – or he would be if the Hnat had been reissued on CD. Canzone II has a Shostakovich scald to the harmonic language. In this work one begins to feel Martinů’s world turning towards darkness. Could I also add that there is a similarly impressive version of this work on an Arte Nova anthology from Christopher Hogwood. 

La Jolla and Toccata e Due Canzoni were previously coupled on LP by Supraphon with Zdeňek Hnat and the same Prague CO on SUP 110 1619. Fine performances which would easily bear reissue. 

One can only fault this disc for failing to add a fourth work. In terms of playing duration it could easily have offered the Sinfonia Concertante or the Sinfonietta Giocosa. 

The recordings are now a dozen years old but they catch the Martinů sound in full flight - wonderful.

Rob Barnett



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