Novak - Piano Concerto, Toman and the Wood Nymph
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Cat No: SU42842
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 25th September 2020
ArtistsJan Bartos (piano)
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, a globally renowned contemporary conductor, invites us to rediscover Novák’s music: “We are obliged to perform it. His music is so profound and far-reaching that we simply cannot ignore it and let it gather dust in archives and remain buried in music history textbooks.”
2020 is the 150th anniversary of Novák’s birth. This is the first studio recording of the Piano Concerto, a remarkable early work by the 25-year-old Novák.
The tone poem Toman and the Wood Nymph may be deemed the most ambitious of Novák’s symphonic works. As the composer himself put it, he strove to express an “uncontrollable torrent of wild passion”, referring to the piece as an “orgy of sound” and the ballad as a “depiction of woman’s demonic power over man”.
Jan Bartoš is a double 5* review recipient from BBC Music Magazine.
1Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E Minor: No. 1, Allegro energico in E Minor: No. 1, Allegro energico
2Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E Minor: No. 2, Andante con sentimento in E Minor: No. 2, Andante con sentimento
3Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E Minor: No. 3, Allegro giusto in E Minor: No. 3, Allegro giusto
4At Dusk, Op. 13: No. 1, Andante rubato, Op. 13: No. 1, Andante rubato
5At Dusk, Op. 13: No. 2, Alla Ballata, Op. 13: No. 2, Alla Ballata
6At Dusk, Op. 13: No. 3, Serenade No. 1 Andante con moto, Op. 13: No. 3, Serenade No. 1 Andante con moto
7At Dusk, Op. 13: No. 4, Serenade No. 2 Andante grazioso, Op. 13: No. 4, Serenade No. 2 Andante grazioso
8Toman and the Wood Nymph, Op. 40
It opens with an early work, the Piano Concerto in E minor of 1895, a student work which has not appeared on CD before. If the influences are a tad obvious – a heady Lisztian Romanticism in the first two movements (with shades of Rachmaninov in the central Andante), and an episodic finale more indebted to Dvořák, all running without a break – it nevertheless shows a fine absorption of compositional models and a deft command of keyboard writing. The monothematicism that underlies the music never stops it from being engaging, and Bartoš’s playing is ardent and committed, with sterling support from the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hrůša and well-balanced sound. In fact, this work would not be out of place in Hyperion’s ongoing series of Romantic Piano Concertos, and anyone who has enjoyed that series will find much to admire here, with performances on a comparable level.
Next up is a cycle of four solo piano pieces entitled At Dusk, one of a series of piano works published at the suggestion of Brahms, no less, by his Berlin publisher Simrock. These stand in a tradition of Czech piano miniatures that stretch from Smetana to Janáček, Suk and Martinů, and although they date from just a year or so after the Piano Concerto, the intensely personal idiom results in music of greater individuality and expressive suggestiveness. There are echoes of Tristan as well as a more delicately-scored central section in the second-movement Alla ballata, which taps into a Central European tradition of legendary folk ballads. Lighter in mood but still of a decidedly Romantic hue are the two Serenades which conclude the set, their intimate atmosphere caught to perfection by Bartoš in playing of great sensitivity.
The highlight of the disc, however, is the ambitious symphonic poem Toman and the Wood Nymph, composed in 1906–07 after a Czech legend that also inspired composers including Fibich, Bergmann, Pihert, Kŕan and Křička. A full decade after the Piano Concerto, Novák had by now fully embraced the eroticism of early-twentieth-century symbolism, partly prompted by an unhappy love affair of his own. The story of a rejected lover, Toman, who finds death in the embrace of a woodland fairy, no doubt appealed to the composer on many levels, and he responds with music that shows the clear influence of Richard Strauss, whose Salome he had recently seen in Prague. Written for large orchestral forces, and lasting 25 minutes, this is music that makes a huge impression, its first half dwelling on Toman’s rejection before building into music of great passion and culminating in what Novák called a ‘sonic orgy’ before the unhappy hero’s eventual demise. In an exceptionally interesting booklet note, Jakub Hrůša proposes Novák as the ‘Czech Strauss’ to stand alongside the ‘Czech Mahler’ of his colleague and rival Suk. During his own lifetime, however, Novák was noted locally for the influence of French impressionism on his mature music, and you can hear much of that evocative delicacy in the work’s magical opening pages, before lower brass and percussion lend proceedings a more visceral twist. There are even echoes of some of the more enchantingly-textured passages of Dvořák’s operatic masterpiece Rusalka. Toman has been recorded several times before, notably by Czech conductor František Jílek, himself one of Novák’s pupils. But Hrůša’s performance with the Prague Radio orchestra stands out from all others for its technical aplomb, full-throttle passion, expressive sensitivity and superb modern sound. Anyone with any sort of interest in Central European music at the turn of the century ought to hear this disc for the extra perspectives it affords on a fascinating figure of the period. In addition to Hrůša’s own conductor’s note, there’s a detailed article on the biography and music by Vlasta Reitterová. Very warmly recommended!
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