Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Vítezslav NOVÁK's The Storm
A Feature Review of two Supraphon CDs: (1) Krombholc, 1956; (2) Kosler, 1978.
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
The Spectre's Bride (1885) [83.50]
Vítezslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
The Storm - A Sea Fantasy on words by Svatopluk Cech for soloists, mixed chorus and large orchestra (1910) [70.40]
Drahomírá Tikalová (sop) (Maiden)
Beno Blachut (ten) (Spectre)
Ladislav Mráz (bass-bar) (Story-teller)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus/Josef Veselka
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaroslav Krombholc
Drahomíra Tikalová (sop)
Maria Tauberová (sop)
Beno Blachut (ten) (Spectre)
Ladislav Mráz (bass-bar) (Story-teller)
Vladimír Jedenáctik (bass)
Jaroslav Veverka (bass)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus/Jan Kühn
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaroslav Krombholc
Dvorák: rec Rudolfinum, Prague, 25-27 Mar, 4-5 Apr 1961
Novák: rec Rudolfinum, Prague, 7-10, 12, 20 Nov 1956

SUPRAPHON 11 1982-2 212 2CD Stereo (Dvorak) Mono (Novák) AAD [CD1: 76.40; CD2: 77.56]
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Vítezslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
The Storm - A Sea Fantasy on words by Svatopluk Cech for soloists, mixed chorus and large orchestra (1910)
Jarmila Zilková (sop)
Jarmila Smyczková (sop)
Frantisek Livora (ten)
Nadezhda Kniplová (sop)
Richard Novák (bass)
Kvetoslava Nemecková (sop)
Karel Petr (bass)
Jaromir Vavruska (bass)
Czech Philharmonic Chorus/Josef Veselka
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Zdenek Kosler
rec Dvorák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague 6-12 Dec 1978 AAD

SUPRAPHON SU 3088-2 211 [76.05]
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While the motivating spark for this feature is the Novák work I do not dismiss the Dvorák from comment. How could I? Quite apart from taking up the whole of CD1 in the Krombholc set and 6 minutes of CD2 it is a most surprising work. It terms itself a 'Dramatic Cantata' so we are ready for the secular Dvorák. What I was unprepared for was the operatic treatment.

Rather like Tchaikovsky, Dvorák cherished the dream of producing a great opera. Like Tchaikovsky the Czech composer's fame stands firmly on anything but his operas. In fairness Tchaikovsky achieved more in the operatic sphere in Eugene Onegin though I have a high regard for Iolanta too. Dvorak had his Rusalka and at least one bonne-bouche aria from this but neither the Czech nor the Russian are seen as primarily operatic composers.

For Krombholc, Tikalová, Blachut and Mráz are in good form though Blachut does show strain in his duets with Tikalová. There is strength in these voices though there is less attention to dynamic variety than I would have hoped. The singing often has an imposing 'Russian' quality (track 12 CD1) which, at this remove in time, may be cheerfully accepted as a strength but must have been received ambiguously at the time of the sessions.

The 'Bride' story is by the Czech poet, Karel Jaromir Erben (1811-1870) whose gruesome stories also provided the impetus for Dvorák's late tone poems (e.g. The Water Goblin, The Noonday Witch and The Golden Spinning Wheel). The Spectre's Bride portrays the macabre element far better than the tone poems. The story tells of a nocturnal horror-haunted flight into Doom. The tradition tapped into is an ancient one and is also picked up in the stories by Grimm and Andersen and in Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts. The story involves the widowed young bride calling back her dead beloved from death (shades of Orpheus, Savitri and Gilgamesh), being punished for her blasphemy and saving herself in repentance. The Dvorák is very varied and rich in melodic incident and orchestral effect. Yes, there are the standard Dvorák fingerprints but, in addition, there is a Beethovenian storminess. Well worth you ear-time.

Let's leave Krombholc for a short while and move to the Kosler disc of the Novák work.

The Storm (in Czech Boure) is based on a poem - 'a sea fantasy' - by Svatopluk Cech. The poem had already been set or intended for setting by Josef Foerster, by Fibich and by Frantisek Neumann. Seven of the fifteen movements are for orchestra alone. The treatment is from the most mature tide-line of late romanticism. Think in terms of Bantock, d'Indy, Alfvén, Zemlinsky, Schmitt, Schreker and Suk. The whole thing is a quite masterly example of the secular cantata and its approximate alternation of tesella, vocal with orchestra and orchestra alone, works astonishingly well.

The Storm was premiered in Brno on 17 April 1910 and performances followed at Pardubice and Chrudim in 1911, Prague in 1912 and Vienna in 1913. Unlike The Spectre's Bride and other choral works by Dvorak The Storm had little or no currency outside the European mainland. Novák had poured a great deal of himself into this major work. Two years of work were invested in creating this great fresco of symphonic design and consummation. In it he forsook the Mediterranean sea-images of the Eternal Longing for the colder climes of Northern seas. Still, the piece is less about portrayal of the sea and more wrapped up in the imagery of the ocean and its role as the source of death and renewal. The sea and storm is also bound up with the eroticism reflected in the duet with the Sudanese prince. This is also apparent from storm-lofted dramatic cry of Nadezhda Kniplová in the Kosler version and of Drahomira Tikalová for Krombholc in track 12. Kniplová is splendid and expresses more of the sensuous element than Tikalová.

The horns and trombones have an apt hoarseness in the older Krombholc session; just the same throaty quality you find in Talich's Asrael recording from roughly the same vintage. Listen to the burred abrasion in track 3 at 2.30. Krombholc also makes more of the horn choir in the prelude and its echoes of Borodin's Prince Igor Overture. In general Krombholc is not so well served in his singing team as Kosler who has attracted a cult following for his recordings of the later Dvorák symphonies. The 1950s Czech line up have a tendency to Slavonic wobble which can be well heard in track 8. However in the impassioned duet at track 11 Mráz is golden-toned and his heated 'colliding' dialogue with the soprano has the manic edge of Strauss's Elektra.

Kosler is superior. While both sets are AAD rather than ADD the reach-out-and-touch technical quality of the 1970s Kosler is a joy. The stereo also helps. The dramatic screaming fanfare of the opening bars is scorchingly abrasive, heaven-screeching, bloodied and defiant. That fanfare is a leitmotif that will recur and help bind the work into a symphonically rounded whole though I confess that the penultimate shore scene does not quite convince. Other motifs are also used and this whole approach follows that in Bantock's supreme masterpiece (unrecorded, I am afraid), Omar Khayyam - a work contemporary with the Novák. Those fanfares return in track 3 and also, much later, to mark the crash of the ship's mast at the height of the storm. The male chorus catch rather well the grotesquerie of the music and the dwarf song is delivered with incisive choral unanimity and definition. No doubt this was down to Veselka's sedulous coaching. The singing has a screaming rush - part triumph and part foreboding. If you love the black-sound achieved by Finnish male voice choirs in Kullervo you'll like this. The Sibelius of the threatening bass-heavy Tuonela is also apparent in the deep rushes and rumbles of the orchestra in the Tempestoso movement just after the love duet.

Novák also shows that he knew his Smetana. In track 5 the bubbling woodwind is a different take on the surging current of Vltava. Over this Jarmila Smyckova sings a wonderful melisma devastating and stratospheric and paced less hysterically than her counterpart in the Krombholc. That folk-like vocalise rather parallels Canteloube; all of which reminds me that Douglas Bostock's latest instalment in the ClassicO sequence of Novák song cycles (with orchestra) has only just been issued. The Vltava springs return in bass-accented echo in the Moderato (track 10) as does that defiant and excoriating fanfare. Listen also however to Krombholc's Czech-toned trumpets at 4.42 in track 14 - just that shading of vibrato. The wonderful French horn winds down into silence as in the enchanted epilogue of Bax's Sixth Symphony. While there is real orchestral character in Krombholc's Czech Phil, the same orchestra remains untainted in Kosler's hands with the additional advantage of a very strongly projected stereo image.

In Kosler's Andante (7) Frantisek Livora as the Youth under the Mast sings with the same unforced and admirably steady muscularity as Smycková. The glorious tone of the choir keeps recalling, in its sturdy effect, Delius's A Mass of Life. This is not the last time we will think of Delius either. In the final tableau the quietly sung reflection of the mixed chorus takes us, most aptly, into Sea Drift territory or indeed into the Morning section of the Delius Mass. Amid the Delian echoes Novák's writing is touched also with the expressionism of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. There is respite though. The andante rubato is Tchaikovskian in its gentle dialogue of strings and woodwind and there are many other instrumental highlights including the probing and striving high violins at 5.30 in the andante rubato.

Richard Novak projects nostalgic strength as the exiled Sudanese king reminisces in the ship's cabin. Novak lacks the generous chocolate tone of Ladislav Mráz (for Krombholc) though there is a quaver in Mráz's voice which I did not hear in his Dvorák. His serenading, almost Neapolitan, singing of Spi, má mladá (Sleep my young one) is unmatched by Richard Novak. One can almost imagine Gigli in this role.

When the Kosler was first released I recall the Gramophone critic comparing the Kosler unfavourably with the Krombholc. For the reasons I have given, and overwhelmingly because of Kosler's team of solo singers I commend the single disc Kosler version. It is not as if the Krombholc is poor. I have already alerted you to only a fraction of its strengths but its rushed approach in at least two places and the quality (some would say the authentic quality) of the solo singing place it below Kosler. As for whether or not you will like the music all I can say is that if the crude parallels I have drawn above are at all part of your listening repertoire then you must hear The Storm. For those who have already discovered Novák through the Pesek-conducted Chandos orchestral collection or through the much less celebrated Bostock ClassicO series this also is the disc for you.

Rob Barnett


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