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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Bedrich SMETANA (1824 - 1884)
Piano Music

Czech Dances, 2nd series (1879)
Six Characteristic Pieces Op. 1 (1848)
Jan Novotný, piano
Recorded: Domovina Studio, Prague (Czech Dances), 1972; Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague (Six Characteristic Pieces), 1980

SUPRAPHON 3070-2 111 [68.55]
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This enterprising Supraphon disc couples early and late solo piano music by Smetana; his Opus 1 (though not truly his first efforts at composition) and his last piano pieces, written five years before his death (around the same time he was completing his famous Má Vlast). Both groups are well worth the listener's attention and the Czech Dances, in particular, ought to be essential listening for anyone who is interested in the origins and ongoing influence of folk idioms in Czech classical music, through Dvořák and Janáček to Martinů. The rhythmic invention and inherent tunefulness may also appeal to devotees of Grieg's solo piano output.

Characteristic Pieces is quite a commonly used sobriquet for many a composer's early efforts, which often turn out, in retrospect, to be anything but characteristic. However, although the influence of Czech folk music and dance, so apparent in the later work is, not surprisingly, given its more formative nature, harder to detect in the Opus 1, the music does sometimes hint strongly at future direction (try The Shepherdess, for instance). The pieces were dedicated to Liszt and the booklet note explains in detail how he was instrumental in facilitating their publication. He was clearly impressed by the pieces, originally titled in French, and probably helped Smetana on his way quite considerably, if more by influential rather than financial patronage.

The Czech Dances are divided into four sections:- two solo dances (including a Furiant - the booklet provides an explanation of the French/Napoleonic origins of the term which is both enlightening and entertaining), four "men's" dances (the gentle Oats, The Bear, The Little Onion and the bagpipe imitating Stamp Dance), two "maiden" dances (including a graceful lament) and a closing pair of group dances. All share the distinction of being truly memorable, either rhythmically, melodically or often both, and it isn't difficult to see how certain aspects of the music of Dvořák and Janáček were informed by such antecedents. The dances conform to Smetana's habit of using thematic pairs, contrasting but complementary pieces, as in the symphonic cycle Má Vlast, and also employ frequent changes of time signature (known as "confounds"). The latter, in particular, makes the music sound more modern (or ancient?) than it actually is and there are even passages reminiscent of such an ostensibly unrelated figure as Percy Grainger!

Rudolf Firkušný's 1950s recordings of the Czech Dances were, like his Janáček, very special, but this performance and recording offer an advocacy of this wonderfully open hearted music that is not so far removed from that accolade. Recommended.
Neil Horner

 


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