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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

Martinu Piano Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 17 Mar 2008 09:32:05 -0700

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text/plain

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Bohuslav Martinu
Piano Music

*  Fantaisie et toccata
*  Piano Sonata
*  Etudes and Polkas, vols. 1-3
*  3 danses tcheques

Giorgio Koukl (piano)
Naxos 8.557919  Total time: 79:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: Quite good.

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890 -1959), though a string player,
wrote piano music throughout his career.  As expected, it partakes of
his stylistic changes: early Impressionism, flirtation with jazz, and
finally his individual mix of Stravinsky and Czech folklore.  This CD,
third in a series of four devoted to the composer's piano works,
concentrates on the period from his arrival in the United States
to his departure, postwar, for Switzerland.

The odd ducks here are the 3 danses tcheques, from the Twenties, a
restless period for Martinu, during which he tried to find his artistic
self.  Though out of step with the rest of the program here, they
nevertheless typify most of his solo piano output: charming, neoclassical
morceau, not outrageously gorgeous, like Debussy or Ravel, not a means
of experimentation like Bartok or Webern, not theoretical or aesthetic
monuments like Hindemith and Schoenberg, not Romantic Expressionism like
Berg.  They aim to please, and little more, with Stravinskian motoric
dance rhythms twisted toward folklore.  If you know the dances on which
they're based (obrocak, dupak, and polka), Martinu's ability to evoke
the rhythms and characteristic steps of each should impress you.

The three volumes of Etudes and Polkas, from 1945, take these kinds of
pieces and raise them to an apotheosis of formal perfection.  The entire
collection consists of sixteen pieces, usually alternating etudes and
polkas.  Martinu throws in an extra "Pastorale" into the first volume,
and puts five items apiece into the second and third.  The etudes concern
problems like touch, articulating melody tossed around inner voices, and
a legato line within a staccato texture, while the polkas are generally
lighter, freer, and (no surprise) more dance-like.  The composer, in
exile most of his life, became at certain times intensely homesick and
turned to Czech folklore, literary and musical.  The origins of the polka
are a bit cloudy and controversial.  Unquestionably, it became a dance
rage in Bohemia (and throughout Eastern Europe) during the Nineteenth
Century.  The Strausses, pere et fils, as well as Smetana wrote famous
examples, but it became a national dance of the Czechs.  Here, Martinu
seems to be using it as much for its iconic as its musical value.  At
any rate, these works, though miniatures, give off a weight far out of
proportion to their size.  Part of it comes from the composer's astonishing
variety of ideas.  We seem to travel through worlds.

The Fantaisie et toccata from 1940 and the Piano Sonata from 1954 count
as Martinu's most substantial works for solo piano.  Most of his output
in this genre belongs to miniatures, with the Etudes and Polkas occupying
some place in between.  Significantly, I think, both are dedicated to
master players: Rudolf Firkusny and Rudolf Serkin, respectively.

Firkusny, for his part, loved the Fantaisie et toccata and kept it in
the active part of his repertoire right up to his death.  Martinu wrote
it in the south of France en route from fleeing the Nazis (the composer
and his wife caught the last free train out of Paris).  Martinu, however,
tended toward a cool "objectivity" in his music and in his life.  Unlike
many of his works from the same period (there are at least five; Martinu
wrote quickly and easily), this one -- far from a meditation on form --
actually seems a psychic record of the time, dark and troubled.  Both
the fantasy and the toccata seem built along the same principles, with
the fantasy more wide-ranging and capricious in its shifts of idea and
the toccata more driving and concentrated.  Nevertheless, both are held
together by one arresting idea.  In the fantasy, it is a cadential figure;
in the toccata, a cell emphasizing tonic and the minor and major third
above.  In between appearances, one gets looser segments, but the
reappearance of the main idea tightens everything up.  The toccata has
fewer of these segments than the fantasy, and indeed the segments are
quite often variations and extensions of the main idea.  The movement
from first movement through the second is that of a progressive tautening.

Serkin stopped playing almost all modern music toward the end of his
career, at least in public, concentrating on the German masterpieces
through Brahms and Reger.  Nevertheless, when he programmed Martinu's
sonata, he generally paired it with Beethoven's Hammerklavier, since
he felt it was one of the few modern works that could stand up to that
masterpiece.  Despite the title, however, some listeners may not recognize
Martinu's piece as a sonata.  The composer, in general, resisted classical
forms, preferring those of the baroque.  "I am a concerto-grosso type,"
he remarked.  Don't waste time looking for first and section subjects.
We really have three highly-organized fantasias -- marked "Poco allegro,"
"Moderato (poco andante)," and "Adagio -- Poco allegro" -- built like
the symphonies, from the minute variations of three- and four-note ideas.

Koukl does a whale of a job on all these pieces.  He actually seems to
have thought his way through to an individual interpretation.  Certainly,
these are more than the run-throughs of Kvapil on BIS.  I happen to like
his playing better than Beckova on Chandos or Leichner on Supraphon, but
I can see the side of those who prefer it the other way.  He is particularly
good in maintaining the long line in the midst of percussive textures.
He falls down, I think, in the sonata, where wayward tempos cloud the
larger outlines of the piece.  On the other hand, his Fantaisie et
toccata rivals Firkusny's, whom nobody surpasses in this repertoire.

Steve Schwartz

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