Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Vítĕzslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)

The Storm, Op. 42 (1908-10)
The Maid on Shore: Jarmila Žilková (sop)
The Swain at the Masthead: Jarmila Smyčková (sop)

The Youth under the Mast: František Livora (ten)
The Maid in the Cabin: Nadĕžda Kniplova (sop)

The Negro in the Cabin/ The Skipper: Richard Novák (bass)
Scullion: Kvĕtoslava Nĕmečková (sop)

First Coastal Robber: Karel Petr (bass)
Second Coastal Robber: Jaromír Vavruška (bass)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Zdenĕk Košler
Recorded at the Dvořák Hall of Rudolfinum, Prague, 6-12 December 1978
SUPRAPHON SU 3088-2 211 [76’05"]


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I bought this recording "on spec" many years ago in its original LP incarnation. It was my first encounter with the music of Vítĕzlav Novák. Nothing like going in at the deep end! It’s good to find this excellent recording now available on CD for it’s hard to imagine many opportunities of hearing this work outside the former Czechoslovakia.

The work, which is described as a "sea fantasy", was composed between 1908 and 1910 and in it Novák sets a long narrative poem by the poet Svatopluk Čech, published in 1869. Čech’s poem, now long forgotten, is, I suppose, something of an allegory in which the turbulence of the sea storm is compared with strong human emotions. The narrative is complicated. At the start a girl watches from the shore as a ship is tossed about in the storm (track 2) and she prays for those on board. Thereafter a series of episodes on board are depicted including a mutiny followed by the crew getting roaring drunk. There’s also an on-board romance (of which more anon) and as the lovers consummate their love the ship breaks up. Finally, the story comes almost full circle with another hymn sung from the safety of the shore, this time by a mixed chorus of fisher folk (track 15).

All this is depicted in powerful, richly scored music which includes parts for several vocal soloists. So far as I could judge, without access to a score, all concerned give fine, committed and accurate performances. I was impressed with the ringing tenor of František Livora (track 3) and the Song at the Masthead is ardently declaimed by Jarmila Smyčková (track 5). The emotional kernel of the work is the love duet between the Maiden in the cabin and her Negro slave who, somewhat implausibly, chooses this moment to reveal himself as an African king, sold into slavery (track 10). As the lovers Nadĕžda Kniplová and Richard Novák are suitably ardent.

The chorus is excellent throughout. The men are particularly impressive in their first foray (track 4) where they are members of the crew singing about the ship’s dwarf (!) The singing is full-throated and committed and always secure despite what sound like some pretty fearsome demands made on the sopranos and tenors in particular. The playing of the Czech Philharmonic is quite magnificent whether at full tilt (which is pretty often) or in the more delicately scored passages. They accompany the singers superbly and are also heard to very good effect in the several extensive orchestral interludes.

Novák’s work is written on a broad canvass and if it is not to sprawl it needs a firm hand on the tiller. Zdenĕk Košler here proves himself to be a musical master mariner. He seems to me to have the full measure of the score and he secures a dramatic and convincing performance. He whips up some fearsome, tempestuous playing and choral singing in the passage which depicts the dismasting of the ship, the event which finally leads to its demise (track 12 from 1’55" and track 13). He also handles the concluding choral prayer (track 15) very well, bringing this uneven work to a noble close.

Yes, it is an uneven work but it contains some very good music and it is well worth investigating. Supraphon’s recording is a good one, accommodating the largest climaxes (of which there are several) very well and balancing the forces properly. This is not the first recording of the work: there was at least one earlier one, which I have not heard, also from Supraphon, conducted by Jaroslav Krombholc but that dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s. However, in the current state of the record industry it seems unlikely that there will be another recording of this piece in the foreseeable future and, even if there were, it would have to be pretty good to surpass Košler’s account. Supraphon’s documentation is very good, providing notes and texts in Czech, German, English and French. Admirers of this composer and collectors with an enquiring ear are advised to snap up this release before it is shipwrecked on the rock of deletions.

John Quinn

see also comparative review by Rob Barnett

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