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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Polkas (1851-59)
András Schiff (piano)
rec. January 1998, Teldec Studios, Berlin
WARNER CLASSICS MAESTRO 256469175-3 [56:36] 
Experience Classicsonline

Smetana was the first Czech composer to make an international impression. His role as leader of the nationalist movement owed much to the encouragement and support of Franz Liszt. While he is best known today as an opera composer and for the cycle of nationalist symphonic poems, Ma Vlást, he was a virtuoso pianist who composed a great deal for his own instrument, including numerous pieces based on the Czech national dace, the polka.

It was in 1998 that András Schiff recorded this varied programme of polkas for Teldec. They date from the 1850s, a decade during which Smetana’s career experienced many obstacles. He worked for some of the time as director of music at Gothenburg in Sweden, such were his frustrations in Prague. In addition he suffered terrible personal tragedy, with the deaths in epidemics of both his (first) wife and his young children. 

These polkas therefore form in some measure a personal testament, rather than merely a series of lightweight dance numbers. For example, in the two collections Opp. 12 and 13 entitled Souvenirs of Bohemia in the Form of Polkas, we find a yearning chromaticism that is typical of Smetana at his most emotionally committed. This is combined with a subtlety of keyboard texture that is worthy of Chopin, whose music he knew and admired. The longest piece on the programme can be found in Op. 12, and the music justifies its scale with a blend of folk-inspired melodies, rich harmonic textures and a narrative line that indicates the ability to articulate a dramatic narrative. 

On the other hand the three Salon (or 'Drawing Room') Polkas, Op. 7, which he dedicated to his first wife, are among the most charming pieces imaginable. András Schiff's playing has all those characteristics which have combined to make him one of the leading artists of recent times: assured technical command, sincerity of interpretation and, particularly important in this repertoire perhaps, clarity of expression in terms of inner part-writing. The recorded sound is truthful and allows for the various strengths of the performances to be experienced. Therefore this reissue can safely be considered as at the top of the game, against the alternatives of perfectly good performances of similar though not identical repertoire from Jan Novotny in a 2 CD set from Supraphon (SU3374-2) and Walter Klien in a 1964 recording now available on Tuxedo (6757 541 83820). 

Schiff’s Maestro recording represents excellent value at bargain price. Though the insert notes tend towards generalisations about the composer’s life and career rather than insights into his music, the production standards are higher than those of several rival bargain labels.

Terry Barfoot 



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