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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Eight Humoresques Op.101 B187 (1892-95) [24:51]
Dumka and Furiant Op.12 B136 and B137 (1884) [8:16]
Silhouettes Op.8 B98 (1879) [20:56]
Suite in A "American" Op.98 B184 (1894) [17:50]
Radoslav Kvapil (piano) – played on Dvořák’s own Bösendorfer 1879 piano
rec. Great Hall of Hluboš Castle, near Přibram, October 1998 
ALTO ALC1044 [71:53]
Experience Classicsonline

I think quite a few people will have noted that Alto has good instincts for reissuing material that might not have seen the light of day in a long while. If the mark of a good product is a reviewer putting his hand in his pocket and slapping down some hard earned cash on the desk then I can attest to having done so for a number of Alto’s discs.

This one has an interesting provenance. It was first issued on Accord 20682 back in 1999. It’s played on Dvořák’s own 1879 Bösendorfer and that’s what gives extra spice to the recital for Kvapil, as we all know, has been a great servant of the composer’s piano music for many years and has recorded two substantially complete cycles, the Old Testament and the New, the earlier dating from 1967-69 and the later in digital, both for Supraphon. His 1993-96 Unicorn-Kanchana Anthology of Czech Piano Music volumes also contained works by the composer. To the question as to whether one can have a surfeit of Dvořák-Kvapil I happily say ‘no’.

The recording was made at Hluboš Castle. In typically swanky style I have elaborated exactly where in the castle for reasons that are actually quite important. Hluboš Castle is in central Bohemia, roughly half way between Prague and Plzeň, and is late baroque but with plenty of late nineteenth century accretions. It was T.G. Masaryk’s summer mansion after the First World War and – and here is the important bit for mere music lovers – the Great Hall has superb acoustics.  So if you ever find yourself near Přibram, as doubtless you will one of these rainy days, drop in.

The programme is a representative one.  Kvapil plays the Humoresques, including those that were sketches for the projected Hiawatha, with great verve and élan. The dainty warmth of No.2 is a feature as are the mellow middle voicings in No.4, the lovely Poco andante. No.7 is the Humoresque but how seldom it’s heard in the original piano version as opposed to its violinistic incarnation.  He rounds the cycle off with great gusto with No.8.  The American Suite is notable in this performance for the finely nuanced B section of the molto vivace second movement as well as by the good taste he shows throughout. The Op.12 Dumka and Furiant makes a good contrast and functions as a preface for the Op.8 Silhouettes. These little pieces show how maturely Kvapil approaches the repertoire and how richly he characterises them without inflating their status beyond natural constraints.

In respect of this last point it’s valuable to consider how the use of the composer’s own piano has led to decision making in these performances. The pitch is 435 double vibrations, so slightly lower than today’s pitch, and its timbral qualities are warmer and mellower than we are used to hearing in contemporary Dvořák performances. It’s particularly noticeable that colouristically and dynamically there is a gain in intimacy, as there is also in  the immediacy of dynamic gradients. You won’t find pedal wash or forcing through the tone in these rich and fluent performances.

As to whether the cachet of hearing Kvapil playing on the composer’s own piano is enough to tempt one to buy – especially given the existence of those two near-full cycles – I think that’s a question best left to the potential purchaser. Those who are tempted however will be treated to a burnished recital.

Jonathan Woolf


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