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Martinu: Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 4 / Giorgio Koukl, Arthur Fagen, Martinu Philharmonic

Martinu,Bohuslav / Koukl / Fagen
Release Date: 11/16/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572373  
Composer:  Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Giorgio Koukl
Conductor:  Arthur Fagen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews


MARTIN? Piano Concertos: No. 1; No. 2; No. 4 , “Incantations” Girogio Koukl (pn); Arthur Fagen, cond; Bohuslav Martin? PO NAXOS 8.572373 (74:45)

Volume 1 in this cycle of Martin??s piano concertos (Naxos 8.572206) appeared in January Read more 2010, and was reviewed approvingly by James A. Altena in Fanfare 33:6. It contained the composer’s Third and Fifth Concertos, plus the Concertino. This second volume, containing the First, Second, and Fourth Concertos, presumably completes Koukl’s and Fagen’s survey, though technically, there are at least two other keyboard concertos: the Divertimento (Concertino) for Piano Left Hand, H 173, and the Concerto for Two Pianos, H 292. It remains to be seen whether the current team will get around to recording these additional works.

A minor misprint on the back plate program listing assigns the Halbreich number 349 to the First Concerto, making it appear a later effort than the Second Concerto. The error is corrected in the insert booklet and in the above headnote. The respective dates of the three works on the disc are 1925 (No. 1), 1934 (No. 2), and 1956 (No. 4). The order of the concertos as they appear on the recording is 4, 1, and 2.

The Fourth Concerto, subtitled “Incantations,” is Martin??s last major work to be written during his final stay in the U.S. Later that year, he left the country to take up the post of composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. But Switzerland was to be his journey’s end, for that’s where he died in 1959. Pianist Rudolf Firku?ny premiered the concerto in New York with Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air in 1956, shortly before Martin??s departure for Italy.

The score is characteristic of the composer’s neoclassical style; but its sharp dissonances and angular, motor-like rhythms, familiar from other Martin? works, also display something of the jazz influences of Gershwin, the brash, busy business of Broadway, and the sometimes hokey histrionics of Hollywood that Martin? would have absorbed during his years in the States. The colorful and brilliant orchestration, almost Respighi-like in its dazzle, sounds cinematic, while the melodic and harmonic profile occasionally resembles something by Ferde Grofé.

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, discussing Martin??s Fourth Concerto, compares it in one respect to Brahms’s B?-Major Concerto, maintaining that it’s not really a virtuoso vehicle for the soloist but really more of a chamber concerto, albeit one that employs a large orchestra and is conceived on the large scale of the big Romantic period concerted works. I’m not sure—nor does the Naxos booklet note explain—what the “Incantations” subtitle refers to, but a more detailed explanation, if one can follow it, is offered by the composer in the booklet note to the recording by Kolinsky and Ashkenazy on Ondine, which I reviewed in 33:5.

That release, and a 1957 live performance by Firku?ný and Kubelík available on Testament (reviewed by Colin Clarke in 32:2) are the currently listed competitors Koukl and Fagen are up against. Firku?ný, of course, knew Martin? personally, was the dedicatee of the concerto, played its premiere, and lived with it for almost 40 years; so, naturally, a certain cachet attaches to his historical recording. But the monaural sound may not be to everyone’s liking. Kolinsky, Ashkenazy, and the Basel Symphony Orchestra make a formidable team on the Ondine CD in a performance I strongly recommended. Nonetheless, if you’re in search of the Holy Grail, so to speak, it should be noted that shortly before his death in 1994, Firku?ný rerecorded the piece for RCA with Libor Pe?ek and the Czech Philharmonic. The company’s brainiacs dropped it from the catalog, but if you have very deep pockets, you can find new and used copies of it on eBay ranging in price from $87 to $176. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who acquired the disc when it first came out, and it would still be my first choice, so it’s not for sale.

The Piano Concerto No. 1, written by the 35-year-old Martin? two years after he’d left his native land for Paris, is a neoclassical piece dressed in a sort of neobaroque style that he may have absorbed from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella , Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, and music he’d possibly heard by one or another of Les Six in some of the Parisian cabarets. Breezy, brisk, and a bit cockeyed, Martin??s score delights in bending the ear with tuneful bitonality. But the piece also recalls the composer’s not-so-distant homeland and romantic roots, as it does in the meltingly beautiful, Czech-tinged Andante movement.

Martin? was well into his Parisian period when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2. The bitonality and French cabaret elements seem largely gone, as the music takes on a more serious, almost Brahmsian, cast. It’s as if Martin? is returning to his romantic roots. The Poco Andante confirms as much with a movement which, according to the note authors “seems to be an unabashedly romantic homage to Brahms.”

If you’re just beginning to explore the music of Martin? and/or you’re on a budget, this fine Naxos release can be recommended without reservation. But even if you acquired the aforementioned Kolinsky/Ashkenazy disc, which duplicates the Second and Fourth Concertos, Koukl and Fagen still make for an excellent complementary version. Their reading is a bit broader in the “Incantations” Concerto, adding about two minutes overall to Kolinsky’s and Ashkenazy’s timing. The latter are only two seconds off of Firku?ny and Pe?ek, which suggests that they may have taken the RCA recording as the definitive model. In the Second Concerto, K&F are significantly slower than K&A (24:50 to 21:13), while F&P, who also offer the Second Concerto on their RCA disc, are the fastest at 20:44. Personally, in the very romantic Second Concerto, I prefer the more expansive approach of Koukl and Fagen, whereas in the spikier and more spirited Fourth Concerto, I lean toward the more athletic approach of K&A and F&P.

Once again, there is much to enjoy on this new Naxos recording. Certainly if you acquired the first volume, you’ll want this one. And though I may have expressed a slight preference for one or another version of these works, Koukl and Fagen do not disappoint. Fine performances and a well-engineered recording make for a positive recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

The major work here is Martin?’s Fourth Piano Concerto, without doubt the composer’s 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. It’s what some might think of as cute and clever, and while that observation might imply a dismissive attitude, I’m 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 Stravinsky’s 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 Bartók here and there, especially in the quieter moments of the first movement. That said, the work is really not imitative, at all—it’s pure Martin?, 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 Martin?’s 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 Koukl’s 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 Martin? Philharmonic Orchestra, and Naxos provides vivid sound. Listeners willing to give the five Martin? concertos a chance should find most of them quite rewarding and well worth their attention.

-- Robert Cummings, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 1, H 149 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Giorgio Koukl (Piano)
Conductor:  Arthur Fagen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925 
Concerto for Piano no 2 by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Giorgio Koukl (Piano)
Conductor:  Arthur Fagen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1934 
Concerto for Piano no 4 "Incantations" by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Giorgio Koukl (Piano)
Conductor:  Arthur Fagen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1955-6 

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