MARTINU: 8 Preludes; Window on the Garden; Fables; 3 Sketches; Le Noel; Dance Sketches; – Foxtrot – Giorgio Koukl, piano – Naxos

by | Jul 29, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MARTINU: 8 Preludes; Window on the Garden;  Fables;  3 Sketches;  Le Noel;  Dance Sketches; – Foxtrot – Giorgio Koukl, piano – Naxos 8.557914,  57:08 ***:

Of the some 400 works composed by Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), some eighty are for the piano, of which only a few receive the attention usually accorded his chamber music and symphonies.  Giorgio Koukl, a Czech artist and former student of Rudolf Firkusny, has assembled six major keyboard opera that traverse the period 1920-1938, just prior to Martinu’s emigration to Paris to escape Nazism.  As several of the titles indicate, popular dance forms captivated Martinu as they did Milhaud, especially those derived from American dance halls and ballrooms.  The jazz influence passes through Martinu’s modal spectrometer, and the results can be harmonically and affectively ambivalent.

The Eight Preludes (1929) are cases in point, fleet, jazzy, percussive, glibly sarcastic, often diatonic. The Francophile touch comes to Martinu by way of Roussel. An interesting evening would program Martinu and Stravinsky’s solo piano works. If David Diamond appears as a quick musical reference, it is because he and Martinu met in Paris.  The Window on the Garden (1938) is a terse suite of four movements, rather lyrical in style, celebrating Martinu’s brief stay in Paris, 1938-1940, and his sunny view of a cottage rose garden provided Martinu’s wife Charlotte by artist Jan Zrzavy. Some delicious trills and arpeggios in the Allegro moderato section. A fateful phone call from Firkusny that the Nazis were about to invade Paris had the Martinus en route to America.

The five Fables (1923) are Schumannesque aphorisms in sound, caricatures of various animals that might appear in Aesop or the gentle side of Orwell, if that is possible. The last piece, The Angry Bear, has a martial tint that might apply to Stalin as well as to Ursa Major. Several harmonies reminded me of Rachmaninov. A snappy blues opens the Three Sketches (1927); then we have a chordal tango–touched by Ravel’s Habanera–and a Gershwinesque Charleston, American music distilled through a Parisian lens. Le Noel (1927) is another suite of three movements, here in the style of Poulenc and Ibert, deftly bright in color and diatonic simplicity. The Child’s Lullaby need not be so boldly percussive, I should think, its carillon effects juxtaposed against a pseudo-chorale.

A touch of Prokofiev opens the five percussive Dance Sketches (1932), the first a hard-edged Allegro moderato that smacks of Petrushka, which finds its way into the Poco andantino and Allegro vivo, too. A Tempo di valse tries to relieve the adamantine, but Koukl has it coming off as rather brittle, the middle section a knotty etude. Hard syncopes begin the last Allegro, which sounds like an etude by Szymanowski cross-fertilized by Stravinsky. The Foxtrot (1920) is one of two experiments by Martinu in American two-step music, a lovely fusion of Joplin and Eubie Blake that ought to be universally standard repertory for modern pianists.

— Gary Lemco


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