Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Concertos Ė Vol. 2
No. 4, H. 358 (Incantation) (1955-56) [20:24]
No. 1, in D major, H. 349 (1925) [29:20]
No. 2, H. 237 (1934) [24:50]
Giorgio Koukl (Piano)
Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra, Zlin/Arthur Fagen
rec. 28ó31 May, 2009, The House of Arts, Zlin, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.572373 [74:45]

The major work here is Martinůís Fourth Piano Concerto, without doubt the composerís most intractable and unorthodox of the five. The concerto is stormy and episodic, not one that lends itself easily to listener accessibility, but not exactly a concerto that discourages audiences, either. Yet, for all its obstinacies and seeming structural detours, it is highly rewarding. Cast in two movements, it is a concerto that looks two ways: toward the less serious side of a composer who could write light music, and toward the more complex side of a composer who here desired greater expressive depth. In a sense, he succeeds in both quests: the concerto has many appealing melodic and rhythmic elements for first-time listeners, but also conveys a darker more profound expressive manner.

The give-and-take between soloist and orchestra in the Fourth Concerto comes across strangely, almost with a mutual hostility, as if conceived in the spirit of separation of church and state: there are long passages where the pianist either plays unaccompanied or sits idle while the orchestra takes center-stage. In the end, the work strikes the listener as a blend of the unsettling and the mysterious, with, in the first movement, lots of harp glissandos and occasional activity from the glockenspiel to fashion mystery, and, in the second, with a darker, eerie sense to impart uncertainty. The work seems to end triumphantly, however, and features a somewhat imaginative Gershwinian coda.

The Concerto No. 1 (1925) is neo-Classical and quite light. Itís what some might think of as cute and clever, and while that observation might imply a dismissive attitude, Iím suggesting nothing of the sort. Cast in three movements, it is a work many will like upon first hearing, with attractive rhythms and themes and lots of colorful piano writing, and with hints of Liszt in the second movement. It strikes the listener, at least this listener, as if it might have been written by a man under the spell of Stravinskyís Pulcinella: try the playful opening, wherein the orchestra states the self-consciously neo-Classical main theme with an oxymoronic mixture of innocence and mischief.

The Third Concerto (1934) is somewhat closer in spirit to the First than the Fourth. But it has a few hints of Rachmaninov and Bartůk here and there, especially in the quieter moments of the first movement. That said, the work is really not imitative, at allóitís pure Martinů, always seeming to go its own, rather distinctive way, with colorful, often playful piano writing and more than a few whiffs of Czech exoticism.

Pianist Giorgio Koukl turns in fine work, matching the high level of artistry he achieved in the first issue in this series, which contained Concertos 2 and 5 and the Concertino. His dynamics and articulation, as well as his grasp of staccato writing, brilliantly capture Martinůís coloristic effects and eclectic nature. Other past Czech pianists on various Supraphon recordings, like Jan Panenka, Ales Bilek and Josef Palenicek, were also effective, but Koukl is at least their equal and often their superior in these performances. But comparisons are almost a moot point, as Kouklís cycle is apparently the only one currently available, and non-cycle issues of the concertos are sparse. Arthur Fagen draws excellent playing from the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra, and Naxos provides vivid sound. Listeners willing to give the five Martinů concertos a chance should find most of them quite rewarding and well worth their attention.

Robert Cummings

Brilliantly captures Martinůís coloristic effects and eclectic nature.