Rauch is to the piano literature of Novák
what Iris Loveridge, Joyce Hatto and Eric Parkin have been to
Bax and Barbagallo and Tocco to Macdowell. He brings to each session
a considered yet never ossified approach which captures
the playfulness alongside the erotic (a subject common to Suk
and Janáček and to Fibich in his Things Lived and
Dreamed), the heroic and the poetic.
As you will have seen from the headnote the piano
music here was recorded over a twenty year period. Not only is
there a variety of audio quality (not as disconcerting as you
may fear) but the range of the music is wide. This takes us from
the Six Sonatinas (classy didactic pieces consciously childhood-picturesque
and in some cases Mozartian) to such works as the spiritually
elevated and demanding Songs on Winter Nights, Pan and
The Second Sonatina's Lullaby is absolutely
outstanding - a tender example from a lullingly tender genre.
Otherwise there are traces of Debussy and Macdowell in these bright
and often playful character pieces. I wonder if they are used
in the UK for teaching purposes. I certainly hope so. The Fifth
Sonatina, Brigand, is rather out of the rest of
the sequence being serious and even heroic. Novák seems
to have some romanticised sympathy with the highland brigands
- rather like Szymanowski in Harnasie. The notes by Vit
Roubicek point out that the Sonatinas hover between the teaching
piano stool and the concert hall. The Fifth Sonata is much closer
to a recital piece than to a teacher-pupil vehicle.
The childhood portrait theme of the Sonatinas
is continued in the Youth cycle of which a sampling of
eleven pieces are offered. Youth belongs to the year before
the Sonatinas so their kinship is not surprising. The most affecting
pieces are Lullaby (CD3 tr.18) and Moonlit Night.
The dances reach towards the dance tradition of Smetana and Dvořák
although the Devil's Polka throws in a few iron-hearted
surprises as well as the suggestion of Peter and the Wolf.
As befits a pupil
of Dvořák, Novák's early piano solos took a fairly unadorned
and uncomplicated approach to his folk-music inspirations
from Moravia and Slovakia. At this early stage in his career the
sort of ecstatic synthesis later applied by Szymanowski to the
folk music of Zakopane and the Polish highlands was beyond Novák's
reach. It was not always to be so. The Four Bagatelles and
the cycle My May all betray this simple rustic approach
in which charm avoids condescension; affection for village life
banishes any element of caricature.
The 1899 Bagatelles have the polished
innocence of a sampler - very much the slight Macdowell and
Dvořák. From the same year and same 'style-sheet' comes My
May. Only in its very brief Tranquillo do we glimpse
the deeper Novák - the quiet musing of Pan in the thickets
of the forest.
The piano sound, dating from 1957, narrows for
Songs on a Winter Night. Here the ecstatic-pastoral is
achieved across the four songs (Moonlit Night; Stormy
Night; Christmas Night; Carnival Night). In
this work the ability to process and synthesise folk material
into something more universal, distilled and magical begins to
arrive. While this is the oldest recording here it is also one
of the most atmospheric and the one to which I will return most
often alongside the cycle Pan.
The Sonata Eroica dates from 1900. In
fact folk influences are pretty much subdued. The Sonata, which
is affecting, is reminiscent of nothing so much as MacDowell's
sonatas, one of which is also called Eroica but with a
darker Lisztian presence than one finds in the American composer's
Pan, a cycle of five substantial pieces
running in total to 54 minutes, is subtitled 'A Poem in Tones'.
It was written at the age 40 and revels in subjects close to Novák’s
heart: pantheism and the love of women and nature. The titles
of the five thematically linked pieces are: Prologue; The
Mountains; The Sea; The Forest; Woman.
The last movement is stormily passionate - possibly his most erotic
piece alongside the other explicitly titled sequence Erotikon.
Both Pan and Erotikon also exist in orchestral format.
Pan has been recorded by Marco Polo with the Brno orchestra
conducted by Frantisek Jilek. The orchestral Erotikon has
not been recorded but an off air tape made again by the Brno orchestra
and Jilek has been circulating on the tape underground for a decade
Pan is a work of full maturity, witness
the impressionistic opening which becomes increasingly assertive
veering in its course from Grieg to Bax to Debussy. The Mountains
sings out in diamond glints and sparkle, not at all like Delius
but with a sense of ice-floes and heroism suggestive of the spellbound
atmosphere of Novák’s orchestral In the Tatras.
The Sea is a restless essay with the great waves rolling
at the surface, currents cross-cutting the marine-scape and with
oceanides disporting amid waves breaking on seaweed reefs and
rocky shore. When compared with other 'sea works' the sense of
the spray and the salt is tangible by comparison with say Haakon
Børresen's Second Symphony The Sea. This is much
more in keeping with Sainton's The Island or Atterberg
West Coast Pictures Symphony not to mention Novák’s
own dramatic cantata for orchestra, chorus and soloists, The
Storm. The Forest is a pulse-stilling rhapsodic journey
inflected in much the same way as the more perfumed Cyril Scott
solos and like parts of Bax's Spring Fire and Ludolf Nielsen's
extremely effective Forest Walk (recorded on DaCapo). The
final movement, Woman, is the longest at an immense 17
minutes (the others are 7.38 7.57, 9.20, 11.37). Once again the
progress has the semblance of instinctive spontaneity like an
extended Bax solo. The passion in the finale is a steady release
rather than a savage climax. The recording of Pan was made
in 1984 and the piano sound is excellent.
An invaluable library addition to Supraphon's
Archiv series which includes such disregarded monuments as Paul
Kletzki's Beethoven symphonies as well as the treasury of Czech
Philharmonic recordings of Ravel and Debussy made by Pedrotti,
Fournet and Baudo.
Rauch had Novák's music in his blood.
He eloquently and with great sensitivity captures the playfulness
of this music alongside the erotic, the heroic and the poetic.