Svoboda was born in Paris of Czech parentage, spent his early
years in Boston and moved to Czechoslovakia in 1946. He graduated
in percussion, composition and conducting after studies with Miloslav
Kabeláč (1908 - 1979). He returned with his family
to the USA in 1964 where he studied composition with Halsey
and Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970). He
has taught for upwards of three decades at Portland University.
His worklist includes amongst many other works:-
Symphony No. 1 Of Nature
Op.20 for Orchestra (1956-57)
Symphony No. 2 for Orchestra, Op.41 (1963-64) [28:00]
Symphony No. 3 for Organ and Orchestra, Op.43 (1965) [28:00]
Symphony No. 4 Apocalyptic
for Orchestra, Op.69 (1975)
Symphony No. 5 (in unison) for Orchestra, Op.92 (1978) [33:00]
Symphony No. 6 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.137 (1991) [38:00]
Concerto e Gioco for Two Guitars, Op.108 (1982) [14:00]
Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Returns), Op.125 (1986) [23:00]
Concerto for French Horn and Tape (CD), Op.93 (1979) [28:00]
Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, Op.148 (1995) [25:48]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.77 (1975) [19:00]
Concerto for Woodwind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon),
Op.111 (1983-97) [16:00]
Concerto for Two Violins and Strings, Op.191
Svoboda’s eight string quartets are performed here by the
dedicated and utterly committed Martinů Quartet (Lubomír
Havlák (violin I); Petr Matĕják, David Danel
(guest on vol. 2) (violin II); Jan Jísa (viola); Jitka
The ten minute long First Quartet
was written in Prague.
It has a lively resinous folk character influenced, so it seems,
by the folk arrangements so popular on Plzen Radio. The effect
is rather like Dvořák but fundamentally salted as
is the much longer and Martinů No. 1, by the shade of Ravel.
At other times the music bustles with a lively rustic style as
in the more demonstrative moments in Howells' In Gloucestershire
Quartet. The big Second Quartet
is from 1997 - some
four decades later. It is a very different work from its predecessor
though still lyrical at its core. This singing core is hedged
with overcast skies and a sense of threat. There are some truly
striking invention including the microscopic genial dances at
3:20. After a delicate pizzicato Andantino we return to a degree
of haunted uncertainty and something subtly close to fear. A thunderously
and pugnaciously impassioned finale concludes proceedings. The
is buzzingly intense - rather like Tippett
at his highest voltage setting. The Third, also in three movements,
has more insect-like buzzing and diving - similar to the opening
of Martinů Symphony 6. This revolves around a carefree melodic
contour. The early 2000s, 9:11 and the Iraq War, also saw the
appearance of Quartet 4
which events, the composer tells
us, is part of the work's weave. It's a very moving piece in two
very substantial movements, tragic, sorrowing, yet in control,
not hysterical and quietly consolatory. While also tough shows
links with the Second and Third Quartets while stepping forward
into a new emotional realm.
Volume 2 of the quartets launches, logically enough, with the
three movement, lissomly singing No. 5
. This bridges back
four decades to his First Quartet although now there is a calm
dissonant burr to the harmonic scheme. It is a deeply satisfying
work with a fine blend of harmonic and rhythmic intrigue. The
is typically - as we can now say of this
composer - haunting with links to the tragedy-honed Shostakovich
Quartets both in rhythm and harmony. The acidic edge is moderated
in the final Lento moderato
but we are still led through
a landscape of louring skies. All four of these quartets are succinct
structures running to around 20 minutes - give or take. The Seventh
thrums with tension, recovering for a small measure
of dance-like abandon in the final Vivace
. The Eighth
is in a single movement approaching twenty minutes.
This 2006 work is tender and pensive, melodic and gentle. In parts
it is as inward as the early parts of Suk's Wenceslas Meditation
The silvery Tippett-echoing filigree at 9:40 is very pleasing.
The work operates as a sung cavalcade of reflections and memories.
This work together with the First and the Fifth are the string
quartet places to start with in getting to know Svoboda. It’s
very well worth the effort.
The recording of the string quartet across each of these two CDs
is exemplary in its close-up intimacy.
The orchestral music discs take us, courtesy of enlightened sponsorship
and via Artisie and valiant Albany, first to a whirling overture.
Svoboda's Overture of the Season
is from 1978. It
is said to be his most played work which is no surprise given
its genial celebratory nature. For me this delightful work echoes
with suggestions of Smetana's Bartered Bride
, the earnest
energy of Arnold Rosner, the bell-rung underscore of William Mathias
and even of Malcolm Arnold. There's also a touch of Janáček's
at the end.
The 25 minute Marimba Concerto
is here played by its dedicatee.
The composer is keen to tap into the instrument's romantic soul
and yet to take account of its limited ability to project. This
the orchestra and recording do. It's a work of intricate detailing
which I confess to finding at first resistant to pleasurable appreciation.
It was the warmly romantic second movement that won me round.
The rampant Vivace
is leavened by the sort of singing voices
found in the string quartets 1, 5 and 8.
Svoboda's First Quartet is from 1960 and the First Symphony
from 1956. Each is a product of his Czech sojourn (1946-1964).
The Symphony enjoyed the honour of being conducted by Václav
Smetáček - or perhaps the honour is the other way
around. Time will tell. The work has a placid burnished singing
quality with its Dvořák-like melodic-set and some
gentle folksy and bird-song cross-currents. The four movements
have their meed of stimulating ideas. These might well find you
looking at Svoboda as if he were a link with Fibich through Beethoven's
, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Very pleasant music
written by a seventeen year old - though the composer gave the
symphony a makeover in 1982.
Good notes enhance this Albany edition as does the total commitment
of the Oregon Symphony and James DePreist.
The final disc in this survey couples Svoboda's two piano concertos.
We start with the Second Piano Concerto
which was premiered in Charleston West Virginia by Garrick Ohlsson.
The first movement, at 25 minutes, is longer than the whole of
the First Concerto. The movement buzzes with the impatience of
the string quartets before opening the way for the ringing piano
solo. Bell tones jazzed with a rhetorical dissonant edge dominate
the scene. The composer occasionally allows himself a degree of
romantic excursion. The middle movement has the long lines and
dignity of the bassoon as centrepiece with player Jennifer Kelley
Speck in the limelight. The finale begins in a raucous barrage,
a fugal string storm, playful intensely concentrated writing offset
by a background contour that sounds like a brother to the Dies
. The soloist’s striding obsidian and hard-struck
piano writing is exciting. The composer writes that this work
represents the “unification of my soul with the cathedral
bells of Frankfurt”. This is a work of earnest profundity
and sprinting excitement rather than emotional delight. It is
closer in this respect to Quartets 6 and 7 rather than to Quartets
1 or 5 or 8.
At 18:24 we can hardly call the 1974 First Piano Concerto
“pocket concerto”. It is concise and varied. The rhythmic
dimension is strong again as is the volleying cannonade of notes
at the start and close. This is not as tumultuous or as unrelenting
as the Mennin Piano Concerto but the rushing section does recall
that work. Svoboda, who is also the adept soloist, at times uses
a hard-edged Waltonian-yet dissonant language. This is lightened
at the start and end by carefree music more nearly related to
that of his American contemporaries such as Copland and Roy Harris.
These four discs furnish a Svoboda perspective around the core
of the eight quartets. The orchestral discs sketch in his creative
work during the four decade gap between the First Quartet and
Svoboda is fascinating. His life story’s geographical history
is as varied as that of Tcherepnin or Martinů. His music
partakes of both American and Czech culture. His Quartets are
for me a special discovery as is the brilliant Overture.
There are several more CDs. To find out more go to http://www.tomassvoboda.com/