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ClassicsOnline Home » MARTINU, B.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 - Nos. 3, 5 / Concertino (Koukl, Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, Fagen)
Martinů was an immensely prolific and varied composer with an impressive list of orchestral compositions including six symphonies and five piano concertos. The three works for piano and orchestra on this disc span twenty years of the Czech composer’s peripatetic career, from the Concertino (Paris, 1938) to the Third Piano Concerto (New York, 1948) and the Fifth Piano Concerto (Schönenberg-Pratteln, Switzerland 1958). As with his complete solo piano
music, also available on Naxos, Martinů’s immediately recognisable style here combines shimmering virtuosity and impressionistic effects, motoric rhythms and pristine harmonies.
By Guy Rickards
Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959)
Piano Concertos • 1
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. He was a prolific composer, with over four hundred pieces of music to his credit. His composing began precociously at the age of ten, after beginning his study of the violin two years earlier. Although he attended the Prague Conservatory, Martinů failed to complete his courses, and while a young man 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. Following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, with the imposing influence of the Soviet Union immediately to the east, a communist coup took place in Czechoslovakia in late February 1948. Martinů, living in New York at the time, completed his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3, H. 316, on 10 March, the same day as the tragic death of Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk under suspicious circumstances, officially deemed a suicide. Martinů subsequently abandoned any plans of returning to his homeland. Although he visited France and Switzerland
that summer, he returned to the United States in the autumn to become a professor of composition at Princeton University, a post which he held until 1951.
His friend Rudolf Firkušný had asked Martinů for a concerto in 1945, but it was not until 1947 that the composer set to work on his Piano Concerto No. 3, of which Rudolf Firkušný gave the first performance in Dallas, Texas, on 20 November 1949, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendl. The work harks back to classical-romantic concertos, invoking Beethoven and Brahms in particular, with certain passages exhibiting a characteristic Martinů twinge. The handsome second movement, marked Andante poco moderato, is an exquisite amalgam of Brahms and Martinů, with stylistic features, sounds and textures that are typical of some of the very best of both these composers. All in all, the work is a twentieth-century concerto that uses the best of the form’s earlier incarnations in a way that even the strongest opponents of modern music could find little about which to complain—a strong, delightful virtuosic tour de force.
Nine years later, in September 1957, at the invitation of Paul and Maja Sacher, Martinů and his wife Charlotte moved to Schönenberg-Pratteln in Switzerland, south-east of Basle, near the German border. The next year Martinů completed his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 (Fantasia concertante), H. 366. Despite the subtitle, it is written in a classic three-movement form. It had its première in West Berlin on 31 January 1959, with the pianist Margrit Weber and the Orchestra of RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor) under the baton of Gotthold Efraim Lessing. Martinů died almost exactly seven months later.
The first movement of the new concerto begins with a stern, stentorian two-note theme, in a style characteristic of late Martinů, which brings to mind Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto. The second theme features a boiling piano figuration and a beautiful flute line followed by one of Martinů’s characteristic seven-beat themes, three minims (half notes) followed by a crotchet (quarter note). The movement ends with an uplifting and inspiring mood fit for the Hollywood big screen. The second movement features a peaceful opening which the piano eventually takes up, but then proceeds to introduce more and more
tension using Martinů’s entire trove of characteristic harmonic devices. The shimmering effect of the trills and planing harmonies lends a more impressionistic effect than is present in the outer movements. The third movement has a glorious Hollywood beginning, followed by repeated notes in a motoric toccata-like section. The lyrical middle section features colourful piano figuration and lopsided rhythmic patterns over a chorale theme in the orchestra. This movement impresses in a way that could justifiably characterize Martinů as a kind of Czech Copland. The concerto finally comes to a surprisingly abrupt conclusion, something of a surprise for the listener.
For the final work on this disc we return twenty years to 1938, the latter part of Martinů’s happy Parisian period, when he wrote the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, H. 269, one year before the outbreak of World War II. Perhaps because of this, the première by pianist Líza Fuchsová did not take place until long after Martinů had fled Paris and settled in the United States. It was presented on 30 March 1947, in Bratislava (now the capital of the Slovak Republic), with the Slovak Radio Orchestra conducted by Otakar Pařík.
In the opening movement, marked Allegro moderato (Comodo), after the orchestral introduction the piano entrance immediately brings to mind the last movement of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, but with many characteristic elements. Movement two, Lento, evokes the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, with its ambiguous broken chord figuration implying quite a different metre from what is actually there. When the orchestra enters, it too has a feel of Rachmaninov. The concluding, sprightly Allegro is absolute Martinů, joyful, with alternating hands (right-left-right, right-left-right) and note patterns implying triplets set over duple metres. One might be inclined to think of both Gershwin and Rachmaninov. Included is Martinů’s ever-present lyrical section which seems to be slightly metrically lopsided. The orchestral sound is one which would not be entirely out of place in a Broadway theatre.
If that assessment of the Concertino seems to suggest a rather less substantial work than the two full-fledged concertos on this disc, consider that the magic of Martinů’s style is that it can at the same time be entertaining and serious, not unlike Leonard Bernstein at his best. It is actually an admirable quality of genius to create music within a uniform style that is at once serious and lighthearted. This harks back also to the wide range of expression found in Martinů’s extensive body of music written for piano alone. In comparing that solo piano music and the piano concertos, one finds it is less a matter of change of style as of an enhanced palette of tone colours. As one listens to all but his very earliest works, one does hear bits and pieces that are reminiscent of this or that composer, but there always seem to be those inherent traits that unmistakably brand the composer as none other than Martinů.
Mark Gresham and Cary Lewis
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