If you have been to a concert and heard a piece by Bohuslav Martinů within the past few years, that is in part a reflection of the tireless work done by the Bohuslav Martinů Institute and Bohuslav Martinů Foundation in Prague. Founded in 1995, the companion organizations are devoted to promoting and disseminating Martinů’s work, which languished in obscurity for decades after the composer’s death in 1959. The Institute maintains a library of scores and is currently in the process of compiling award-winning critical editions of Martinů’s oeuvre. The Foundation publishes a journal and stages an annual festival in Prague, Bohuslav Martinů Days.

Ivo Kahánek and the Wihan Quartet
© Zdeněk Chrapek

Though modest in size and scope, the festival offers an opportunity to hear a variety of performers, this year ranging from the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra to the Prague Castle Guard and Police Band, present a broad sampling of Martinů’s work. With a wealth of local talent to draw on, audiences get to hear musicians who typically command much larger stages play music close to their hearts in intimate settings. This year’s closing concert featured Ivo Kahánek, regarded as one of the Czech Republic’s finest pianists, and the Wihan Quartet, replacing the originally scheduled Apollon Musagète Quartet.

Martinů’s work framed the program and offered snapshots of the composer at three different periods in his life and career. The Wihan Quartet opened with the String Quartet no. 2, composed in 1925, when Martinů was a young man living in Paris and absorbing new musical influences like jazz. Kahánek joined the group for the concluding Piano Quintet no. 2, written in 1944, several years after Martinů managed to flee Europe and resettle in America, but was still shaken by his narrow escape from the Nazis. And to close the first half, organist Michal Novenko played a fragment, Vigil for Organ, composed just months before the composer’s death.

The opening piece was, in a word, brilliant. In a country where string quartets abound, this performance offered a reminder why the Wihan Quartet is considered among the very best. The group speaks with a single, finely calibrated voice characterized by virtuoso technical skills and exuberant yet disciplined expression. Setting a torrid pace, the players handled the rush of colorful tonalities and changing cadences with aplomb, giving wings to a piece that imbues a traditional form with fresh ideas and energy.

Michal Novenko
© Zdeněk Chrapek

The quartet brought the same tight focus to the Piano Quintet, offering a clean, driving version of a piece that teeters on the edge of becoming a five-car pileup. Instead it was like a current, pulling the listener through turbulent emotional rapids with flashes of upheaval, anxiety and melancholy. The piano is an independent voice in the piece, and Kahánek had to bang hard to make himself heard above the strings. Explosive chords in the first movement dropped like hammers, and pauses in the strings in the second and third movements gave him a chance to add a thrilling element and show an authoritative style.

Martinů’s music takes on added resonance among his contemporaries, neatly represented on this program by Paul Hindemith, Albert Roussel and Karel Husa. Cellist Michal Kaňka (from the quartet) and clarinetist Irvin Venyš served up a spirited, flavorful version of Hindemith’s Ludus minor for Clarinet and Cello, and flutist Žofie Šrámková joined Pavel Ciprys (viola) and Pavel Verner (cello) for a dreamlike rendition of Roussel’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello. Foundation Director Jiří Hlaváč, a noted clarinet and saxophone player and teacher at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, played a soulful alto sax on Husa’s Postcard from Home, with Kahánek adding texture at the keyboard.

In some ways, the most moving piece of the evening was the shortest. Vigil for Organ starts out like it wants to be sacred music, then veers off in more modern directions. If Martinů was writing his own elegy, it was going to be true to character, a fresh take on an old form. Even as his days were drawing to a close, his creative spirit burned as brightly as ever.