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]  

There has been a revival of Martinů concertos on disc of late, beginning with Hyperion’s highly regarded series of the works for violin and orchestra (vol. 1; vol. 2; vol. 3; vol. 4) and continuing with the cello and orchestra works on the Chandos reissue that I reviewed here earlier. While both the works for violin and those for cello come out of the composer’s top drawer, the concertos for piano and orchestra are not of the same stature. Indeed, having listened to this recording several times, I cannot express all that much enthusiasm for this music. For me, the best of the three is the earliest, the Concertino, which belongs to the composer’s Parisian period. That said, for those who are collecting Martinů’s complete works, this CD is a good way to add these concertos at a very affordable price.

It is interesting that there is an exact ten-year spread among the three works on the disc. The earliest, the Concertino, is placed last and, as I noted above, it seems to me the most successful of the three. The work begins with a march-like theme and the punched out chords in the piano part are clearly reminiscent of Prokofiev. According to the notes accompanying the disc, the second movement evokes the similar movement in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I can see that but it also reminds me of the first movement in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with its repeated triplets. The finale is rhythmic and syncopated and more typical of Martinů, with some Poulencian hi-jinks before it concludes. The work may be less ambitious than the two official concertos, but it is better unified than they are and overall more characteristic of the composer I know and like.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 was composed for the famous Czech pianist and friend of the composer, Rudolf Firkušný, shortly after the Second World War. It is a rather Brahmsian work, with chordal writing in the piano part very similar to that in Brahms’ Second Concerto. Sample, for instance, at the 4:00 mark and again at 8:08 in the first movement and you will find yourself in the world of Brahms - or a parody of it? The second movement also is redolent of Brahms, while the lighter-hearted finale begins with a charming theme in the winds and strings and then taken up by the piano that’s unmistakably by Martinů, though before long “Brahms” makes an additional appearance. This concerto is the longest of the three, yet retains enough interest - something that cannot be said for the last work in the series.

I find the Piano Concerto No. 5 rather similar in scope to Martinů’s last symphony, the Sixth. Both have subtitles that give away their rather rhapsodic natures. The Fifth Concerto is a Fantasia concertante, while the symphony is titled as Fantaisies symphoniques. Martinů composed both in the 1950s in America, where he wrote all of his symphonies and his later concertos. As I have found the Symphony No. 6 to be rambling, so I also find the Concerto No. 5. To me it is a rather disorganized work with much note-spinning.

As to the performances, Giorgio Koukl, clearly has the measure of the pieces and projects them about as well as one could wish. Both he and conductor Fagen have considerable experience in Martinů’s music. The orchestra also accompanies well. If it does not always produce the most refined sound, it plays well in tune and obviously has the idiom in its blood. The Naxos sound is on the dry side, but again this does no harm to the music. There is no direct comparison with these particular works on disc. Firkušný made a well-respected recording with the Czech Philharmonic and Vaclav Neumann of Concertos 2-4 for RCA that may be hard to find. A disc with Robert Kolinsky and the Basel Symphony under Vladimir Ashkenazy of Concertos 2 and 4, along with other orchestral works, recently came out on Ondine. I have not heard that one, but it has secured positive reviews. If you are collecting these concertos, this new Naxos series, then, is as good a place as any to start. Just don’t expect the works to be at the same level as Martinů’s string concertos.

Leslie Wright 

see also review by Bob Briggs