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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 5 (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 (Naxos 8.570215), which was originally intended to be the final disc of this series, several manuscripts of previously unperformed, unknown or lost works have been discovered. For this recording of the unpublished Polkas and Waltzes (the latter are Martinů’s very first music for piano), Prague born and educated Giorgio Koukl has used manuscript sources, gaining unique insights into this often folk inflected, immediately appealing and emotionally rewarding music.
By David Denton
Naxos thought that their fourth volume of Bohuslav Martinů’s piano music had completed the series until several previously unperformed manuscripts were discovered, this disc being the first of three world premiere recordings. The Five Waltzes, which date from 1910, is the earliest and was written when the composer was twenty and almost self-taught. That might explain the unique sounds, though there are instances of his musical world in his much later works following formal study. The other curious aspect is the feel that he had been influenced by others composers, yet there is no evidence he had come into contact with their works. As a young man he had been a loner living with his family high in a church tower 193 steps above the street. He was unable to accept formal education, but had somehow taught himself to play the violin to a standard that earned him a living as a member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The Waltzes are unusual in the way they slip through keys, and though they are not major works, they are a curiosity well worth hearing. Whether Martinů was simply experimenting we will never know, but six years later, when he wrote the Polkas, he had been educated in composition, though was still using continual key changes to create music of pure delight. Sample track 3 for one of the happiest polkas you will ever encounter. There is nothing here to pose technical demands, but as with previous releases the Czech-born pianist, Giorgio Koukl, continues his love affair with Martinu and no other pianist today could make a more eloquent case for the music. The sound quality is everything you would want.
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Complete Piano Music • 5
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 (Naxos 8.570215), 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 music to produce three more discs.
This fifth CD in the series features two sets of works drawn from Martinů’s earliest music for solo piano, and Giorgio Koukl presents here the world première recording of these. The unpublished Waltzes 1–5, (H. 5) Martinů’s very first music for piano, were written in 1910, when he was still essentially self-taught, even before his first consultations with Josef Suk. The other, Polkas 1916 (H. 101) was composed in the midst of World War I, between the first two completed books of his famous Loutky.
The first Polka is a delightful piece featuring delicious deceptive phrase lengths and intimations of waltzes packed into wonderfully transparent Schubertian textures. Were the composer unidentified, one might well guess Dvořák or Schubert whose piano styles one might be inclined to conflate, but we also get the chord progressions with an emphasis on plagal harmonic movement that are so typical of later Martinů, where his own personality peeks out. Martinů’s common heritage with Dvořák is also demonstrated in the second Polka. The phrase-lengths are more standard, but with a stylistic trait of repeating the tune and taking it to a new pitch centre. The strange final cadence is a premonition of later Martinů, though we do not yet have the ‘sewing machine’ quality, as well as the ringing bells, that are so often associated with the idiosyncrasies of his later styles. The third Polka starts off as if it were an homage to a Chopin polonaise, revisiting the quirky haze of the first Polka’s rhythmic effect, almost feeling like a waltz every once in a while. The delightful cross-rhythms certainly hint of the rhythmic fluidity Martinů would come to develop.
Influences of Dvořák and Smetana underlie the fourth Polka, with pleasant tunes repeated in different key centres, as in the second Polka. This is another delightful demonstration of how Martinů’s music began to evolve from that of his Bohemian elders. Again, places where the composer slips in extra beats or measures leave one with the impression of rhythmic fluidity that became a hallmark of his later chamber music.
With the fifth Polka we have finally a foreshadowing of the kind of harmonic language more typical of the older Martinů, immersed within the context of Chopinesque piano figurations reminiscent of his mazurkas. Of the sixth and final Polka, one finds many of the same characteristics of the first five, with evasive, fluid metres, and parallel phrases having varied endings that take us to a new place.
Like the Polkas, the earlier Waltzes feature repeated tunes in different keys. While Schubertian in texture, these earlier pieces still hint at signature Martinů chord progressions, with uncanny chromaticisms and astonishing cadences, but they are metrically normal, without the more fluid slipping and sliding that are apparent in the Polkas. The final cadence of the first Waltz, however, is a real harbinger of later Martinů. In several of these Waltzes one may curiously find allusions to Spanish music, perhaps a flavour of the music of Enrique Granados or the Spanish dances of Claude Debussy, but there is no historical evidence to suggest that Martinů had any interest in things Iberian at the time these were written, although later in life he would occasionally express wonder at whether his family name was derived from Italian or Spanish roots (perhaps Martini or Martinez respectively). The bass at the beginning of the first has that downward series of steps (A-G-F-E) that is typical in so much guitar music, but, as can be found more prominently in the third waltz, a Richard Straussian influence cannot be overlooked either. By the fourth Waltz, it has become progressively more fun to see how far afield Martinů is going to go for the final splashy cadence. It is less than a minute into this one that the planing harmonies bring to mind Debussy’s Spanish music. The final fifth Waltz is not so square in phrase lengths, with a middle section that is more dreamy than any of the others in this set. One hears some surprising accidentals in the melody, a nice Richard Straussian emphasis on leaping and landing a half-step away from the resolution, and once again an astonishing ending.
While these early Waltzes were written in the year when young Martinů began seriously devoting himself to continuous work as a composer, it was not a particularly comfortable time for him, academically speaking. Martinů found himself expelled from the Prague Conservatory for a second time—the first had been for playing with an amateur orchestra without permission, this time for ‘incorrigible negligence’. The next year he failed to pass the state examination, though he finally did one year later. World War I intervened in 1914, but Martinů was excused from obligatory military service. The war’s conclusion completely changed the political face of Bohemia with defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, resulting in the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic. For the next five years, Martinů continued to reside there, surrounded by the influences of his Czech culture, but he had opportunity to see much of Europe through a summer tour as a violinist with the orchestra of the National Theatre and subsequently as a regular member of the Czech Philharmonic.
In 1923 he made his move to Paris, where he would remain until 1940 working as a freelance composer, usually returning home to Polička in the summers. While Martinů would become fully immersed in the cosmopolitan outlook of this ‘Parisian’ phase of his career, his homeland was never far from his mind.
Mark Gresham and Cary Lewis
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