MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra.

MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra. Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Emil Leichner, piano. SUPRAPHON — 11 1313-2 032 DDD]; two discs: 75:56, 74:14. Produced by Jana Smekalova

Although the music of Bohuslav Martinu enjoyed a brief period of international prominence during the 1940s, it was soon eclipsed by other music presumed to represent more “advanced” compositional thinking. However, during the past twenty years, his work has been rediscovered by a new generation of performers and listeners, as his vast output is gradually being made available for general consumption. With someone as prolific as Martinu, who managed to produce some 400 works, this process takes a long time. Such compositional workaholics, like his contemporaries Villa-Lobos and Milhaud (not to mention Martinu’s erstwhile student Hovhaness, treated elsewhere in this issue), seem to lack the capacity to monitor the quality of their production, so the job is left to others. Typically, the resulting group of truly distinguished and significant works is no larger than that of composers of more moderate productivity, but this essential core is buried among reams of routine, formulaic redundancy, and this is as true of Martinu as it is of the others mentioned above (and of the 18th-century prototypes for this sort of fecundity). But determining which of his 400 works really represent the composer at his best is a daunting task, requiring familiarity with at least 60%-70% of them. Now some 35 years since Martinu’s death, I wonder how many critics and musicologists have reached that point; I myself cannot claim acquaintance with more than 10%, at the most. And so, the “assessment” phase proceeds before the “discovery” phase has really been completed, with many untested assumptions, premature generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and some unexpected discoveries along the way.

Interestingly, the unearthing, sorting, and sifting of Martinu’s output has roughly coincided with the existence of Fanfare as a vehicle for discourse concerning new musical discoveries. Reading through the comments of a variety of writers in this journal on the subject of Martinu over the course of 16-17 years offers a fascinating microcosmic view of this process. One observation that emerges is that the grim, harsh, and darkly propulsive Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani, seems to garner unanimous praise as a masterpiece (an assessment with which I have no quarrel). But an initial critical enthusiasm welcoming an engaging creative voice marked by freshness, vigor, and humanity, and graced by distinctive individual touches, seems gradually to have given way to a certain amount of disappointment. There have been complaints about Martinu’s lack of formal focus, about his indulgence in empty pattern-spinning and in mannerisms that, with repetition, become irritating clich├ęs, and there has been an increasing awareness of the duplication of meaning that is virtually inevitable in an output of such dimensions.

For most composers with five piano concertos to their credit, such a cycle would stand as a central component of their canon, and if those five concertos existed alongside nearly 40 other pieces for piano, including additional concerted works, one might conclude that the piano were the primary medium for such a composer. But neither of these assumptions seems to hold for Martinu. With a particular propensity for the concertante concept, he spewed forth dozens of such works (again, like his 18th-century antecedents), and the piano concertos seem simply to be five more, though, presented along with the Concertino that appeared between Nos. 2 and 3, they do span most of his compositional career (unlike his six symphonies, for example which all appeared during a twelve-year period). The inclusion of the Concertino is appropriate, as it is really no more different from the concertos, with regard to weight, style, or dimensions, than they are from each other. So what we have on this generously filled two-CD set are six full-length works spanning the years 1925-1958, adding up to two and a half hours of music that strikes me as, for better and worse, typical Martinu.

By “typical Martinu,” I refer to the composer’s penchant for motoric rhythmic figurations that bristle with a fluent vigor spiced by syncopated sub-groupings, though, as has been noted, in less inspired passages, the music may simply clatter along mechanically. This constant bustle of activity is offset by lilting, Czech-accented melodies that at times soar in richly-scored triadic harmonizations. The piano concertos are not heroic, romantic virtuoso vehicles, but are rather created along late-Baroque/classical lines, with outer movements characterized by a playful exuberance and slow movements marked by lyrical warmth and an occasional touch of mystery. The emotional tone remains moderate throughout. It took Martinu a number of years to develop his peculiarly idiosyncratic language into its “mature” form, though one can discern consistently recognizable elements throughout the stages of evolution. So while listening to one of these concertos after another can easily create a sense of redundancy, there is no question that the kaleidoscopic stream of imagery found in No. 5 is a far cry from the straightforward chunka-chunka regularity of No. I.

Martinu composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1925, while he was living and studying in Paris. I challenge the conventional view that the influence of Stravinsky and Les Six pervade his music from this period; I am not sure that Martinu didn’t arrive at his own brand of neoclassicism independently of these other voices, which convey to me an entirely different mentality. This First Concerto certainly is characterized by clean, diatonic lines and clear, spare textures that suggest 18th-century practices. The outer movements bounce along cheerfully in a happy-go-lucky fashion, while the slow movement generates tender warmth quite alien to Stravinsky,

The Second Concerto was composed in 1934, but was revised ten years later. In this work, Martinu’s distinctive lilting lyricism blossoms forth, enriching the cheerful neoclassical bounce.

The Concertino dates from 1938 — the same year as the aforementioned Double Concerto — and strikes me as a psychologically and musically more complex work than both earlier concertos, with some of the ambiguity of mood that characterizes Martinu’s later work. I assume that the diminutive denotation of the title is prompted by its shorter duration, though the Concerto No. 4 is shorter still.

Concerto No 3 of 1948 displays a greater richness of orchestration and variety of texture. Toward the beginning, a distinctive two-chord figure — sometimes called the “Moravian cadence” (a dominant-quality thirteenth-chord in inversion built on the fourth scale degree resolving to the tonic) —  which Martinu used until it became something like a tic, is proclaimed here for the first time in these works. Rather peculiar are repeated references to the phraseology of Beethoven and, to a lesser extent, Brahms — not so obvious as to be deliberate quotations but too frequent to be meaningless coincidences. Though the work exhibits many of Martinu’s most engaging qualities, its insistent lack of expressive contrast creates a weak profile.

The works discussed thus far are of interest primarily to those listeners who have an insatiable appetite for Martinu’s music and welcome all they can get their hands on. Though each is ingratiating enough, these pieces offer no more or less pleasure or stimulation than other comparable works by the composer. To hear one at a time once in a while is fine, but, taken all at once, the repeated mannerisms and the exceedingly restricted expressive range make a poorer cumulative impression than the music really warrants. However, the Fourth and Fifth Concertos are on a higher level, displaying far greater individuality, psychological complexity, and musical interest.

The two-movement Concerto No. 4, subtitled, “Incantations,” was completed in 1956, and seems regarded by critical consensus as another one of the composer’s masterpieces. It is certainly the most challenging of these concertos in its language and the least conventional in form, with brittle sonorities, angular percussive gestures and a nervous insistency that combine to create a sense of urgency and expressive power missing from its predecessors, and evoke a sense of the fantastic characteristic of Martinu’s most memorable works.

This sense of the fantastic is given even fuller expression in the Concerto No. 5, “Fantasia Concertante,” though its harmonic language is less angular and dissonant than in No. 4. As recently noted by Benjamin Pernick (Fanfare 17:3, pp. 231-2), this concerto resembles the Symphony No. 6, “Fantaisies Symphoniques” of 1954, in its profusion of richly varied sound-images that tumble forth in a swirling torrent of imagination, creating at times an almost other-worldly effect.

Although I haven’t heard it myself, I am tempted to recommend to all but the most omnivorous Martinu devotees the single Campion disc discussed in the review just cited, as it features specifically the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, along with the Harpsichord Concerto. However, Pernick was somewhat reserved in his evaluation of those performances. The two-disc Supraphon set discussed here was recorded between 1986 and 1989, and the performances and sound quality strike me as perfectly adequate. Of course, those fanatical devotees won’t hesitate in acquiring this first complete recording of the Martinu Piano Concertos.