Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) is not particularly known for his piano music, but on the evidence of the pieces presented here, in Volume 1 of what I can presume will be a series of releases comprising all his piano works, they are not negligible. The works on this CD are all miniatures, none lasting longer than three minutes. (There is an error in the booklet; it indicates that one of the movements from Eight Preludes, No. 7 in the series, lasts eleven minutes, but that is a typo; it lasts 1:10). They are early works mostly from the 1920s, none coming after his move to the US in 1941. It is evident that even as early at 1920, when Martinu still lived in his native village in Czechoslovakia, his distinctive voice had begun to emerge. His influences include American jazz, Stravinsky, his Parisian teacher Albert Roussel, and Debussy. There are times when his writing reminds one of the cheeky Poulenc; of course after his move to Paris in 1923 he was immersed in the music of Les Six. Martinu was not a pianist per se, having started out as a violinist, but the music is pianistic and expertly written.
The works presented here include Eight Preludes, H. 181 (H. stands for Harry Halbreich, the noted French musicologist who cataloged Martinu's works); Fenêtre sur le jardin, H. 270; Fables, H. 138; Trois esquisses, H. 160; Le Noël, H. 167; Esquisses de danses, H. 220; and Foxtrot, H. 126. There is a good deal of influence in these early pieces from American ragtime and jazz. Foxtrot, one of several such-named pieces Martinu wrote, is the earliest work here and sounds, much of the time, as if it could have been written by Joplin. Fenêtre sur jardin (Window on a Garden) was written in 1938, the last work he wrote before he got a telephone call from Rudolf Firkusny warning him of the imminent invasion of France by the Nazis; shortly after he and his wife left for Portugal and eventually came to the USA. Trois esquisses (Three Sketches) are titled Blues, Tango and Charleston and sound for all the world like music Debussy might have written had he visited New Orleans and New York.
Le Noël, written in 1921, couldn't be more different than Trois esquisses, written the same year. It is influenced by the lean and tart harmonies of Les Six. It exudes Gallic charm. Fables, written in Paris in 1923 but given Czech titles, is a collection of five character pieces characterizing the farm, a rabbit, monkeys, a chicken and an angry bear. This is definitely a Bohemian farm; there are rhythms and melodies that trace their origins to Czech folk music. Esquisses de danses, a five piece collection from 1932, is the work here most influenced by Roussel although one would probably never actually confuse it with that Parisian master's works. It has some of Roussel's harmonic asperity coupled with lively rhythms.
Giorgio Koukl is a Swiss pianist born in Czechoslovakia in 1953, trained in Switzerland and Italy. Among his teachers were Nikita Magalov, Jacques Fèvrier and Rudolf Firkusny. His playing is marked by rhythmic élan and clear delineation of harmonic processes while not sacrificing warmth. Just listen to the whirling Allegro vivo from Esquisses de danses and you'll see that he is a true virtuoso who brings out the arching melodies while nonetheless dancing furiously. I believe a second volume of this series is already out but I have not heard it yet; I intend to.