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Martinu: Concertos, Frescoes / Ashkenazy, Kolinsky

Release Date: 11/17/2009 
Label:  Ondine   Catalog #: 1158   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Robert Kolinsky
Conductor:  Vladimir Ashkenazy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Basel Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

MARTIn? Overture, H 345. Piano Concertos: No. 2, H 237; 1 No. 4, “Incantation,” H 358. 1 Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H 352 Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond; Robert Kolinsky (pn); 1 Basel SO ONDINE 1158 (65: 54) Read more

Martin?’s music, though a cosmopolitan cocktail of Czech, French, and American influences, is not complicated or difficult to comprehend. As a young man with an obvious predilection for music, he entered the Prague Conservatory. Prague, one of Europe’s most important musical capitals, gave the budding composer the opportunity to hear the latest works by Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Following World War I, Martin? was hired to play in the second violin section of the prestigious Czech Philharmonic, an appointment that would further fine-tune his ear to the art of orchestration.

Shortly thereafter, Martin? left his homeland for Paris to study with Albert Roussel. In the heady Parisian atmosphere between the two world wars, he came into contact with the music of Les Six , and fell under the influence of jazz and neoclassicism. But underlying everything he wrote, there remained in Martin?’s music a deep strain of his native Czech heritage. Dvo?ák and Suk are never far below the surface.

Of the three works on this CD that fall chronologically within the years bracketed by Martin?’s American period (roughly 1941–1956)—the Overture, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca —only one of them, the concerto, was actually composed on U.S. soil. The Overture was written in 1953 during a brief stay in Nice. It was, however, intended for an American audience, being dedicated to the Parent Association of the High School of Music and Art in New York for the opening of the Mannes College of Music, originally founded in 1916 as the Mannes School of Music. The piece is a festive sounding thing, with lots of busywork in the strings and winds, brass fanfares, a delightful paraphrase of Bach’s A-Minor Violin Concerto at 1:28 and again at 4:46, and a gorgeous lyrical melody beginning at 2:40 that one wishes would last longer than it does. If you didn’t know the piece was by Martin?, you might be excused for thinking an Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March had wandered into one of Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik concertos.

In 1955, once again in Nice (one of the composer’s favorite cities), Martin? composed Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca , fresh from having viewed Piero’s original frescoes in the Church of Arezzo. The work is one of Martin?’s last large orchestral compositions, and one of his very finest. Echoes of Strauss’s and Respighi’s tone poems, the luminosity of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle , and the orientalisms of Bloch reverberate throughout the score, as do passages of melodic lyricism that could only have been inflected by the folk music of Martin?’s native Bohemia. This is a spectacularly colorful work with the grand sweep of a vast and mesmerizing canvas in sound that stretches as far as the ear can hear.

The Piano Concerto No. 4, titled “Incantation,” was the result of a commission Martin? received from the Fromm Music Foundation in New York. This is the one work on the disc dating from the composer’s American period that was written in the U.S. It was dedicated to one of Martin?’s friends, pianist Rudolf Firkusny, who premiered the piece in 1956 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Leopold Stokowski leading the Symphony of the Air. The concerto, in two movements rather than the more standard three, was intended, according to Martin?, as “a concerto for piano in the form of a symphony or fantasy.” His explanation of the “Incantation” sobriquet, quoted in full in the booklet text, is a bit circuitous and difficult to follow. But one needn’t follow it at all to grasp the music. A bit tougher grained, more angular in profile, and more modernistic in style, it is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable concerto that affords the soloist plenty of opportunity for virtuosic display. I’m tempted to compare the piece’s harmonic tartness and rhythmic incisiveness to some of the writing one hears in Prokofiev’s piano concertos, but Martin?’s melodies and orchestral textures are different enough that one wouldn’t confuse the two.

Finally, we come to the Piano Concerto No. 2, the earliest work on the program, one written in Paris in 1934, long before Martin?’s emigration to the U.S. Next to the Overture, this is the most Romantic-sounding piece on the disc. It opens with a melody that could almost have been written by Saint-Saëns; indeed, much of the keyboard figuration and treatment of the orchestra is reminiscent of that famous French composer. But sudden harmonic digressions and dissonant clashes tell us otherwise. There are also strong Russian scents that pervade the score, perhaps those of Balakirev’s Islamey . This shouldn’t be too surprising in light of the fact that there was considerable cross-pollination among French and Russian composers in the early years of the 20th century.

Recorded competition, in some cases significant, does exist in this repertoire. Ji?í B?lohlávek, for instance, leads the Czech Philharmonic in a rousing performance of the Overture on Supraphon. And Rudolf Firkušný, the work’s dedicatee, can be heard in a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 with Rafael Kubelík and the Philharmonia Orchestra on a Testament CD (reviewed by Colin Clarke in Fanfare 32:2). For the Piano Concerto No. 2, I find no other current listing; but Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca , being one of Martin?’s most popular pieces, has quite a few recordings, including a very fine one with JoAnn Falletta and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra on Albany. Ironically, when William Zagorski reviewed it back in 24:4, he lamented that the work was “egregiously underrecorded,” the only other version he was familiar with being the one with Ernest Ansermet and his Suisse Romande Orchestra. Today, there are at least 10 recordings listed, which should be enough to satisfy Zagorski and just about everyone else.

While other available versions have their merits, I’m going to conclude by saying that comparison shopping is not necessary. This is an absolutely stunning production in every way. Ashkenazy has long proved himself as brilliant a podium master as he is a pianist, and he has in Robert Kolinsky an outstanding soloist for the two concertos, a superb symphonic band in the Basel Orchestra, and a team of Ondine engineers and producers who know how to make a mightily impressive-sounding recording. Buy this without hesitation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

The two piano concertos receive splendid performances, and they are marvelous works--certainly two of the finest 20th-century compositions for piano and orchestra. No. 2 combines memorably lyrical thematic material with a real opposition of personalities between piano (chromatic, full of wit) and orchestra (sweetly diatonic). No. 4 is a remarkable piece, almost athematic but full of arresting sounds and textures, written in two formally fluid movements. It's a mesmerizing work, and Robert Kolinsky plays the piano part with a winning combination of improvisational fantasy and firm rhythm. He's just as convincing in the Second concerto's rapid-fire exchanges between piano and orchestra, while Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Basel orchestra accompany colorfully.

The late Overture, a bouncy seven-minute concerto grosso, opens the disc in high spirits, and the only small disappointment comes in the form of Ashkenazy's slightly droopy reading of The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. He certainly relishes the music's luminous textures, but particularly in the first movement Martinu's syncopated rhythms need sharper articulation and a touch more energy. Ancerl, for example, is a bit quicker, slightly more focused, and it makes all the difference. Still, for the concertos alone this well-engineered disc deserves very serious consideration. Recommended.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Overture, H 345 by Bohuslav Martinu
Conductor:  Vladimir Ashkenazy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Basel Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953; France 
Concerto for Piano no 2 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Robert Kolinsky (Piano)
Conductor:  Vladimir Ashkenazy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Basel Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1934 
Concerto for Piano no 4 "Incantations" by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Robert Kolinsky (Piano)
Conductor:  Vladimir Ashkenazy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Basel Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1955-6 
Frescoes of Piero della Francesca for Orchestra by Bohuslav Martinu
Conductor:  Vladimir Ashkenazy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Basel Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1954; Nice, France 

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