Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Concerto No. 4, H358 Incantation (1956) [20:24]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D major, H149 (1925) [29:20]
Piano Concerto No. 2, H237 (1934) [24:50]
Giorgio Koukl (piano), Bohuslav Martinů Symphony Orchestra, Zlin/Arthur Fagen
rec. 28-31 May 2009, The House of Arts, Zlin, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.572373 [74:45]

The first instalment in this series – the third and fifth concertos – received a cautious welcome from BBr, who suggested it would appeal to newcomers rather than those familiar with earlier, more authoritative versions (review). This Czech orchestra and soloist are new to me, but on first acquaintance they make a fairly good impression. Not only that, the sound seems reasonably full and well balanced. I did wonder why Naxos chose to start with the fourth concerto, but I soon realised it’s simply the best of the three and hence a sensible opener.

This two-movement concerto starts arrestingly enough, Koukl’s playing – like that of the orchestra – perhaps less trenchant than one might expect from this composer. That said, there’s a breadth to this performance that’s most appealing, the piano sounding natural, the percussion well caught. There are some unexpected idylls in this restless mix, whose sonorities occasionally remind me of the composer’s Field Mass. The Poco allegro is a tad prolix though, with a hint of Hollywood B-movie about it, the Poco moderato a moody little number that blends lyricism and bite. This is an easy, unassuming performance, but is that enough?

The first is the weakest concerto here, from the rhetorical opening through to the close shadowing of orchestra and soloist. The declamatory writing comes across well, the simple, open passages reminiscent of Copland. In this performance at least one senses Koukl and Fagen are working hard to reanimate the music, as impetus and inspiration flag; the Andante is too ponderous for my tastes, a huge contrast to the Prokofiev-like quirkiness of the preceding movement. Still, Koukl is always engaging, the band attentive – if somewhat uncouth – in the final Allegro. There’s a momentary shift of perspective here, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.

The second concerto suffers from the same excess of gesture, although the detail and point of Martinů’s scoring are well conveyed. There’s a freewheeling quality to the first movement too, bringing a sense of personality to what are otherwise po-faced utterances. What a pity the excitable tuttis are so crude and close. Everyone makes the most of this rambling Andante, which can so easily seem like an extended ‘doodle’. That’s certainly the case here, the lack of inspiration thrown into sharp relief by raucous climaxes. The final movement is rather more quixotic, although there’s a bluff quality to the writing that’s wearying after a while.

I’d like to echo BBr’s comments about these performances perhaps appealing to those unfamiliar with these concertos – they certainly seemed that way on first hearing – but subsequent auditions suggest they are much too variable to recommend.

Dan Morgan

Perhaps appealing to those unfamiliar with these concertos.