MARTINU: Fantaisie et toccata. Piano Sonata. Etudes and Polkas, vols. 1-3. 3 danses tchèques.
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
Naxos 8.557919 (B) (DDD) TT: 79:54

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 tchèques, 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 Bartók 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 (obrocák, dupák, 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, père 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.

S.G.S. (January 2008)