Bohuslav MARTINU (1890 - 1959)
Piano Concerto No.3 (1947) [30:37]
Piano Concerto No.5 in B Fantasia Concertante (1958) [25:19]
Piano Concertino (1938) [21:29]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra, Zlín/Arthur Fagen
rec. 10-12 October 2008, The House of Artists, Zlín, Czech Republic. DDD
NAXOS 8.572206 [77:37]

No sooner had I reviewed the 7th volume of Koukl’s complete survey of Martinů’s solo piano music than this disk appears. It heralds a complete recording of the composer’s works for piano and orchestra. That is no bad thing, for we fans of this wonderful composer have, for too long, had to seek out imports to satisfy our interest in him. Now we have a label which is easily available worldwide taking an interest. It’s about time.

Martinu wrote five piano concertos. Their composition covered the whole of his composing career, from 1925 to 1958 and they display a variety of “accents”, although they all, ultimately, speak with the same voice. The 3rd Concerto was written for Rudolf Firkušný and it’s a big piece in three large movements playing for a fraction over half an hour. The first is declamatory in style and it is followed by a movement which is part slow and passionate and part fast and angular. The finale is playful, and quite joyous. It is the kind of musical work which aims to have something for everyone. I got to know the work from the old Supraphon LP with Josef Páleníček with the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ančerl (SUAST 50386) and what a performance that is! One of the problems with Martinů is that he wrote far too much and wasn’t sufficiently self-critical, therefore, even some of the major works, the 3rd Concerto included, need very careful and thoughtful handling in performance. Páleníček achieves a coherence in the music which I feel lacking in Koukl’s performance, for the latter seems content not only to let us hear the music, but also to feel the structure. Koukl merely allows us to hear a piece of music. One of the major problems with this work is that the toccata movements are relentless, and, ultimately, they can become boring, Koukl fails to vary his tone colour sufficiently to allow for this and by the end my ears were ringing with too big piano tone and rushes of notes.

The 5th Concerto was composed for the Swiss pianist Margrit Weber (Stravinsky wrote his Movements for piano and orchestra for her) and it’s written in an easier language than the 3rd. Lyricism takes precedence over motor rhythms. The orchestration is richer too, though not thicker. The first movement is a kind of tortured allegro which has a very rich vein of lyricism; proof, if it were needed, that even towards the end of his life Martinů could produce a work so full of life. The middle movement is a kind of disturbed night music enclosed within a chorale. The finale, although fast, isn’t one of his insistent moto perpetuos, rather it’s easy-going, again full of the life spirit. Koukl seems happier in this work, he gives an especially fine interpretation of the slow movement, but it still doesn’t feel right. It lacks the lightness necessary to make this delightful piece flow. Weber’s own recording, with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, has been re-issued, coupled with its orignal partner - Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain - and Alexander Tcherepnin Bagatelles, op.5 and Weber’s Konzertstück, op.79 - with Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 463 085-2). This is a much more understanding performance.

The Concertino is an earlier work and has a little of the Martinů of the 1920s Paris years, but with a deeply searching slow movement - a very serious section within a lightish piece. Even though this is the most successful performance here it still leaves me dissatisfied for it is too hard in execution and it never smiles! I always liked the Supraphon LP of Eva Bernathova, with conductor Jiri Pinkas (SUAST 40909 - coupled with the Double Piano Concerto) for it is much lighter and allows more light and air into the piece.

As it stands, this issue will give a lot of pleasure to those who don’t know the pieces and haven’t heard the recordings I’ve mentioned. However, these performances cannot be considered to be the last word on this subject. Both pianist and orchestra are far too po-faced for this music. One thing much of Martinů’s music does is smile and that is what is missing here. I recommend it for the competition is almost non-existent, but keep your eyes open for more idiomatic performances which may become available.

Bob Briggs