This is the fourth volume in Jitka Čechová’s
Supraphon cycle of piano music by Smetana (see review
3). She is the current pianist in the world-renowned Smetana
has in her
recorded catalogue a fine version of Dvorak’s infamously
intractable Piano Concerto (Cube Bohemia CBCD 2426). As a former
pupil of the acknowledged Smetana expert - and indeed creator
of all the editions used on this recording - Jan Novotný,
she is carrying forward a proud tradition of piano recitals produced
by this label over many years. It should be said right from the
outset that her interpretations are every bit as searching and
musicianly as those of her esteemed teacher.
The significance of piano music within Smetana’s body of
work is far greater than the equivalent produced by Dvořák.
For many years it was through playing the piano that Smetana
made his modest living. Also, the orchestra was not as natural
a medium for him as it was for Dvořák so that in
many of these superficially slight works one can find Smetana
wrestling with harmonic and structural ideas that make for far
more compelling listening than the equivalent pieces by Dvořák
which were written for the salon with little other intent.
This is the first of the volumes that I have heard and one does
get a slight sense - in programming terms - of tidying up the
loose ends of a complete cycle. All of the works here date from
early in Smetana’s compositional life. They were written
between the ages of 24 and 33 and can be broadly characterised
as either belonging to one of his many Albumleaves
both forms in which he composed extensively. During the early
part of his career Smetana spent much of his time away from his
native land seeking fame and fortune quite literally as an international
concert pianist. He spent longest and was best received in Sweden.
Here, he played recitals in the salons of the wealthy and influential
and much of the music he wrote was aimed at this potential audience.
Before he finally returned “for good” to Bohemia
in 1861 - when he finally began describing himself as a composer
and not a piano virtuoso - he approached the composer/impresario
Carl Reinecke in Leipzig with a view to obtaining some concerts.
For Reinecke he listed a repertoire which included twenty-four
pieces by Liszt, thirty-one by Chopin, and twenty by Schumann.
With that quantity of music literally in his head and fingers
it should be no surprise to find influences of all three audible
in the music recorded here. Smetana’s greatest achievement
was to do for the Czech national dances - and primarily the polka
- much the same as Chopin did for the Polish Mazurka and Polonaise.
This is immediately apparent in the very first track on this
CD - rather blandly titled Polka in F sharp minor
No.1. The predicted hearty two-beat “um-cha” feel
of a polka has been immediately subsumed into something far more
lyrical and reflective. And it is with this wistful lyricism
and song-like rubato that Jitka Čechová shows herself
totally at ease. Comparisons of this piece - one of the longest
on the CD running to 5:19 - with others cements the impression
that here is a performer totally inside the composer’s
musical sound-world. The well regarded William Howard on Hyperion
sounds hesitantly four-square by contrast - trying to make it
into a more traditional 2/4 polka. Time and again throughout
the recital I was struck by the unforced beauty of Čechová’s
phrasing with a technique easily able to cope with the demands
made of it. The key is that nothing sounds arch or mannered.
I was struck time and time again that here was an artist utterly
inside and at ease with the idiom of this music. No “contractual
obligation” album this! There is a danger with this style
of music that it can lapse into the fey. Čechová can
command a wide dynamic range when required - listen to It
boils it roars Op.3 No.3
for powerful articulate playing
but for much of this programme we are in the realm of essentially
gentle sentiment without sentimentality. The same remains true
for the bulk of the twenty-six pieces (averaging about 2:30 each)
that make up this CD. There is a certain sameness to the expressive
world being explored by the composer here and for all of Čechová’s
advocacy it was not a disc to which one remained compellingly
glued throughout its sixty-eight or so minutes.
The Supraphon engineers have reflected this by capturing the
piano truthfully if not with overly rich sound. I have heard
more beautiful piano recordings but I have to say this does suit
the character of the music presented. My guess is that the bulk
of purchasers will come to this having bought at least some of
the earlier volumes so they will know well what to expect from
both composer and performer. If you are interested in exploring
Smetana’s piano works I would not recommend this as your
first port of call. This is for the simple reason that he wrote
far greater piano pieces later in his life. But for Smetana completists
or admirers of Jitka Čechová’s art this is
a compulsory purchase and for those like me a prompt to seek
out the first three volumes in the series.