This is a tremendous
introduction to the piano music of Smetana. Much of Smetana's
music remains little known outside his native territory of
the Czech Republic; I include in this statement many of the
operas – except, of course, Bartered Bride. Ivan Moravec
has been known to encore some of Smetana's solo piano music,
as indeed he did at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in December
2002. But it is surely a safe bet that this repertoire
has remained hidden even to more seasoned collectors.
The two sets of
Czech Dances presented here differ in length and manner
of presentation. The first set comprises four polkas and lasts
just over 12 minutes, while the second set presents a mix
of mainly titled pieces. The first polka of the 1877 set is
cast in F sharp minor and brings to mind a Chopin Mazurka
in its veiled melancholy, a mood continued by the second (A
minor). The last two polkas are in major mode, though. The
third (F major) is infectiously happy and bright, a mood highlighted
by Čechová's laughing staccati. Some of the writing in
the fourth (B flat major) is decidedly tricky, not to say
awkward, yet Čechová takes it all in her stride.
The opening Furiant
of the second set of Czech Dances immediately takes
us into a different world. It speaks of weightier matters
- reflected in its length of 5:37. In fact the musical expression
of his set probes decidedly deeper, despite the seemingly
flippant nature of movement titles ('The Oats', 'Stamping
Dance'). Čechová successfully projects significant national
pride into the first dance (a Furiant) of the second series.
Throughout she plays with the utmost sensitivity. Her emotional
repertoire includes humour - the delightful eighth movement,
'The Bear' - and tenderenss - the middle section of 'Little
Onion' and 'The Lancer'. The angularity and overt virtuosity
of 'Stamping Dance' is expertly rendered here, as is the charming
simplicity of 'The Astride Dance', with its superb gradual
ritardando before it fades out of earshot. The final 'Jump
Dance' is a helter-skelter ride, and a fitting end to a most
enjoyable sequence of character pieces.
The final four
pieces on the disc cover the final years of Smetana's life.
The Bettina Polka is a revision of a sketch dating
from 1859 and is a slight piece - ideal for use as an encore
- while The Peasant Woman (another polka) was originally
an orchestral piece of celebratory nature. Čechová retains
its extrovert nature.
At 55 seconds
the Andante in F minor hardly has time to make its mark. It
is a mere album leaf, a fragment laden with an echt-F
minorisch burden that expires gracefully. Finally comes,
the G minor Romance, Smetana's last work for piano, which
provides a thought-provoking end to this magnificent disc.
Bravo to Supraphon
for including in its technical specifications for this disc
the name of the piano tuner (Ivan Sokol). Most companies omit
the piano technicians, yet credit (correctly) engineers, producers
Those interested in
exploring this repertoire further should locate a budget Regis
disc of Smetana piano music played by the experienced Radoslav
Kvapil (RRC1173). The disc's contents complement rather than replicate
this Supraphon programme, including an interesting curio in the
form of Smetana's Macbeth and the Witches. Kvapil plays
selections of Polkas that predate the ones on the present disc,
and thus helps to contextualise them – not to mention to underline
the magnificence of the later works.