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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 6 (Koukl)
Giorgio Koukl’s survey of Martinů’s complete piano music has been praised as “a
delight” (Gramophone) and “estimable and important” (MusicWeb International).
Since the release of Volume 4 (8.570215), several manuscripts of previously
unperformed, unknown or lost works have been discovered. While Volume 5
(8.572175) presented six polkas and five waltzes, this disc draws on manuscript
sources for Jeux (Games) Series I, Three Lyric Pieces, Evening at the Shore, Song
Without Words and the Nocturne, works which deepen both our appreciation of
Martinů’s genius and Koukl’s advocacy of his music.
By David Denton
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Complete Piano Music • 6
Bohuslav Martinů was born in a church tower in Polička, a
small Bohemian town about eighty kilometres north of
Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. His composing
began precociously at the age of ten, two years after he
began study of the violin. Although he attended the Prague
Conservatory, he failed to complete his courses. While a
young man, he worked as an orchestral violinist in Prague
before moving to Paris in 1923 in order to study with Albert
Roussel. He moved to the United States at the beginning of
the 1940s to escape the spreading Nazi occupation of
Europe. Martinů was a prolific composer. He wrote over
four hundred pieces of music, some eighty of which were
for the piano. Even though they constitute such a large
portion of his work, the reputation of his works for solo
piano has typically been overshadowed by that of his
orchestral and chamber music.
As was suggested in the notes for Volume 4, which was
originally intended to be the final disc of this series,
manuscripts of previously unperformed, unknown or lost
works by Martinů continue to be discovered. Thus, any
attempt at an anthology of “complete works” will be open
to the possibility of future amendment. Since that time,
Giorgio Koukl has researched and recorded enough piano
works to produce three more discs. This sixth CD in the
series opens with three sets from Martinů’s mature Parisian
In 1931, the year before he composed Esquisses de
Danses, H. 220 [Volume 1, Naxos 8.557914, tracks 24–28],
Martinů composed two other sets of Esquisses and two sets
of Jeux. Panton published only the first set of 6 Esquisses and the second set of Jeux, together in a single volume as Esquisses / Jeux. The first set of Jeux remained unpublished,
but is included on this CD, hence the correct titles Jeux I and Jeux II. Unfortunately the second set of 6 Esquisses became
lost over the years. To acknowledge the fact that Martinů
composed them as a companion, however, to the first set, they are correctly entitled here Esquisses I. These three sets
are instantly recognizable as the Martinů most people know.
In Esquisses I, H. 203, one can hear an underlying
“sewing machine” kind of momentum in the first
movement, where texture is important and the melody is
subservient. The second features ragtime, with clear
influences of American rhythm and triadic harmony. Again,
texture and rhythm reign, while melody seems to be the
result rather than the lead cause. The third features delicious
conundrums of rhythm and metre. The fourth is quieter,
more melodic, bringing to mind Debussy’s Girl with the
Flaxen Hair and the importance of plagal cadences in
Martinů’s music. The fifth is a little jazzy, with cross metres
and a simple but effective melody repeated on different key
centres. The sixth and final movement reiterates the feeling
of the first but more directly melodic.
Jeux I, H. 205, is even more so unmistakably Martinů.
The opening movement smacks of bitonality, and sequences
that playfully blur the underlying pulse. The delightful
second movement again offers the underlying “sewing
machine,” while the third is a bit jaunty, jazzy, featuring the
wonderful, fascinating cross patterns of notes of mature
Martinů, which can often be terribly tricky to play, as, for
example, a pattern with five notes in one hand and seven
notes in the other. The fourth movement is itself distilled
“essence of Martinů”.
Jeux II, H. 206, opens with underlying mechanical
momentum, but with a bit of sassy jazz. Movement two is
slightly Stravinsky-esque, with the insistent motor rhythm
left hand. One can again notice a carry-over from Martinů’s
earlier pieces of a tendency for phrases to be repeated at
different pitch centres. Movement three is a perfectly
beautiful little gem, with swirling patterns set against the
metre that hold the attention magnificently, but this time
used primarily for a peaceful effect. Number four is motortoccata-
like usage of his pattern play. Again, Stravinsky and
maybe even a little Poulenc come to mind. Movement five
invokes similarities to slow movements of some of Martinů’s
chamber works, with a blurred distinction of six beat
groupings—sometimes ternary, sometimes binary, but very
flowing and natural sounding. The sixth and final movement
is delightful little grotesque march, reminiscent of Prokofiev.
In contrast to these mature Parisian works, most of the
remaining works on this disc were written in earlier years,
in Martinů’s Czech homeland. According to Giorgio Koukl’s
research, all of these tracks are world premiere recordings.
The Three Lyric Pieces, H. 98, were written in Prague
in 1915 during World War I. Number one certainly has a
ding-dong quality of Martinů-ish bells, and fascinating
harmonic progression almost two minutes into the piece.
The second movement has a popular sounding introduction,
almost as if it were from a musical theatre piece. The body
of the work is beautiful, with interesting harmonizations.
The third scherzando movement includes stereotypical
western treatment of oriental music, bringing to mind the
music of American impressionist Charles Tomlinson Griffes—particularly his Piano Sonata.
Although composed in Polička, Martinů’s brief Black
Bottom is from 1927, the same year as his jazzy Trois
esquisses [Vol. 1, tracks 18–20 of this series], and is clearly
part of his Parisian style. Although it was composed only
one year after Jelly Roll Morton recorded his classic Black
Bottom Stomp in Chicago, Morton’s title refers to the Black
Bottom district of Detroit. By contrast, Martinů’s Black
Bottom is instead inspired by the popular dance which
became the rage during the late 1920s, eventually overtaking
the popularity of the Charleston, with which it shares similar
rhythmic foundations. Martinů’s snapshot of the style again
reminds one of his fascination with American dance music.
Evening at the Shore, H. 128, written in Prague in 1921,
reveals the influence of Debussy, its impressionism also
implied by the descriptive Czech titles of its movements: Plachetka se vracì vecčer do prčìstavu (A small sailing boat
returns in the evening to the port), Písenč na pobrčeží (Song
at the Shore), Brčehy v prčíboji (The Shore in the Storm). The
second even evokes the sound of Puccini—not just the
harmonies, but in particular the voicing of the melody just
before the end. The third movement brings to mind
comparisons not only Debussy, but also Griffes—both his Fountain of Acqua Paola (from the Roman Sketches) and
his Piano Sonata.
The Song Without Words, H. 46, of 1921, also written
in Prague, is a mournful tune but includes some of the
earliest hints of the “bells” that would become an important element of Martinů’s style.
The Nocturne, H. 95, from 1915, written in Polička,
offers a really interesting juxtaposition of styles. A gorgeous
impressionistic haze of undulating harmonies takes turns
with a straightforwardly tonal, almost march-like tune
accompanied by bells.
The disc’s final track, the Chanson triste, H 36, of 1911,
also written in Polička, is an effective character piece. It is
a sad song indeed—generically so for the most part, but one
snaps to attention with the harmonies between the hands
toward the end, an early example of the bitonality found in
so much of Martinů’s later music.
Mark Gresham and Cary Lewis
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