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Biblical Songs
Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Biblical Songs (1894) & Preludes & Fugues for Organ (c1857)
Juraj FILAS (1955)
Fresko for organ in one movement (1991)
Juraj BENEŠ (1940)
'O Virtu mia' - Aria concertante per basso ed organo (Dante-Purgatoria)
Sergej Koptchak (bass) Ales Barta (organ)
Rec. 6th-8th June 2000 & 22nd August 2000
Arcodiva UP 0033-2 231 [67.40]

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There is no doubt that Sergej Koptchak is a great bass. In fact he is one of the finest I have ever heard. He has ample opportunity to display his abilities. Two works on this CD are devoted to bass and organ. The other two works are for solo organ.

Antonin Dvorák's Biblical Songs were written in 1894 when the composer was de-facto head of the New York National Conservatory. They were composed at the same time as the more famous and popular Cello Concerto. Dvorak was a Catholic yet unusually, for these Biblical Songs, he used the Protestant version of the Psalms. He chose to set selected verses only. They were originally composed with piano accompaniment however some were later orchestrated. In the present recording we have the benefit of the organ in St Jilij Church, Prague. There is a great depth to these settings, and this profundity is emphasised by the relative simplicity of the writing. This depth is well reflected in this recording. Sergej Koptchak sings these songs in Czech, however an English translation is provided in the sleeve notes. The songs are masterpieces of their genre, even if they are not to everyone's taste.

Sergej Koptchak has had a distinguished career. He has sung opera at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava for twenty-two years. He sang Gremin in Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden in 1982. Since then he has appeared in all the major musical centres in the West - including Milan, New York, Rome, Salzburg and Munich. He specialises in Slovakian music.

The other work, or group of works by Dvorák are his Preludes and Fugues for Organ. These were unknown to me and I imagine will be relatively unknown to many listeners. However for those people who need the 'complete works' it will be a desideratum. When Dvorák studied at the Organ School in Prague he naturally prepared a number of exercises. Amongst them were these five preludes, one fughetta and two fugues. Very much in the vein of Bach they show the young musician as a competent technician. These works represent the composer's earliest compositions that have survived in manuscript and as such deserve a hearing. Whether they will find their way into the regular organist's repertoire is another matter.

The organist is Ales Barta. A quick 'surf' on the Internet reveals him as one of the leading organists of the Czech Republic. He has a widely ranging career both at home and around the world. His repertoire is broad based and includes baroque and modern pieces.

The two remaining items on this CD are both twentieth century works. The first, Fresko for Organ is an excellent 'prelude-toccata-like' piece written in 1991 for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dvorák. It is a strong, virile piece that has many of the hallmarks of what is best in modern organ music.

There is nothing here which will offend any but the most conservative of listeners. A few passages sound as if the organ has developed a cipher, but I believe it is meant! There are even 'catchy' phrases!

The two works for organ solo were recorded at the Unicov Concert Hall.

The final piece on this CD is once again a duo for organ and bass solo. This time it is an aria from Dante's purgatory. The sleeve notes describes the composer, Juraj Beneë as having a style characterised by 'wit and playfulness.' These adjectives are evident in this composition and its performance. Once again there is nothing here which is liable to frighten anyone away from the piece. It is well written and beautifully performed. The soloist's bass provides an effective vehicle for Dante's words. A translation of the Italian original would have helped those of us who are not Dante scholars.

I notice from the record sleeve that Koptchak has also recorded songs by Rachmaninov and Glinka. These would certainly be worth a hearing.

On the whole an excellent CD with quite an unusual programme. Programme notes could be a bit more helpful, especially about Filas and Beneë , who may not be so well known outside Prague. It would have been useful to have a few notes about the two organs used, even if a full specification was not given.

John France

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