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Ivan Moravec plays Czech Music
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Polka in A Minor (Czech Dances First Series 1877)
Czech Dances (Second Series 1879)

Polka in G Minor (Three poetic Polkas 1854)
Memories of Plzen (Polka 1843)
Josef SUK (1874-1935)

Pisen lasky (Love Song Op 7 No1)
Humoresque Op 7 No2
O Matince (About Mother Op 28)
Oldrich F KORTE (b 1926)

Sonata for Piano (1951-53)
Ivan Moravec, piano
Recorded Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague December 1984 (Smetana, Korte, Suk; Pisen lasky and Humoresque); Domovina Studios, Prague, 1962 (Suk; O Matince)
SUPRAPHON SU 3509-2 111 [71’56]
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There has been a welcome resurgence of interest in the art of Ivan Moravec of late. One of Philips’ ‘Great Pianists of the Century’, this and other more recent releases have brought his pianism to the attention of those perhaps only imperfectly aware that he is one of the master pianists of our age. This Supraphon CD of material taped in 1962 and 1984 was released in 2000, the year of Moravec’s seventieth birthday. The following year I saw him in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Chopin in a recital of characteristic modesty and unspectacular greatness. He stands now with Jan Herman and Rudolf Firkusny in the triumvirate of the greatest Czech pianists to have recorded and this disc gives yet more evidence of his colouristic sensitivity, tonal beauty and musical buoyancy.

The Smetana A Minor Polka is played with lilting affection and with a flexibility of rubato that never slides into the flaccid. The piece has a simple but not simplistic melodic appeal and Moravec can either glitteringly harden his tone when necessary or bathe passages in half-lights of almost spectral beauty. He catches the delicacy and the dreaminess of Hulan (The Lancer) from the 1879 Czech Dances laced as it is with something of the nostalgia of Schumann. The variations are in Moravec’s hands decorative flecks in the right hand whilst the lift is strong and even, dynamically gradient and noble. Obkrocak is convulsively exuberant and the Furiant if anything even more dramatically successful a conception. At 1’30 Moravec leans on the right hand passages slightly; the effect is one of infinite rhythmic elasticity far removed from mannerism. He is capable of tremendous depth of unforced tone – never hardening or becoming brittle and as here the effect is one of drama and excitement. He infuses the G Minor Polka with an appropriate sense of theatricality and a secure sense of rubato whilst Memories of Plzen, one of the weaker pieces, is still prettily insistent. When he turns to Suk he does so with acute sensitivity. His O Matince displays a wealth of characteristic virtues. He is not over inclined to linger – he is significantly fleeter and less dreamy than Slovak pianist Marian Lapsansky on a rival disc for example. In the first of the cycle of five he eschews sentimentality and promotes instead a simple gravity of utterance; the adagio has a surging, verdant freshness to it, its slight air of melancholy subsumed into the patina of Moravec’s lyricism. The uniform depth of his bass in the third, How Mother sang at night to the sick child, is a subtly ominous foreshadowing of the next, Mother’s Heart. Moravec never draws attention to the programmatic nature – or at least to the descriptive nature of the movement’s titles – but instead lets the music grow from within; in the last piece, Remembrance, he is by turns, and wholly sensitively, agitated, sonorous, veiled and regretful.

He plays the Humoresque with requisite flourish – it’s an immature, rather fin de siècle piece whereas Pisen lasky is also one of Suk’s early works and one of his most famous. Moravec stabs away at the insistent bass notes that run throughout, tying the work securely to something rather more than mere effulgent ardour. His rubato is at the service of the work’s moods, his tone unselfconsciously ravishing. Korte’s Sonata was composed between 1951-53 and a prizewinner at the Bolzano Competition. Opening in stentorian fashion a neo-baroque passage intervenes which itself relaxes into a romanticised episode that winds down before a return to the opening brittle flourish. Elements of conjunction and opposition pervade the second of the two movements – strident neo-baroque once again but here undergoing a process of translation. The triumphant baroque theme resurfaces once more in an intriguing procedural development; this makes the work sound far more mannered and artificial than it actually is and Moravec’s advocacy speaks of his own admiration.

All but O Matince derive from a live recording at the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum in 1984; the audience is commendably silent, except for occasional applause, though Moravec’s guttural commentary, a kind of wounded yelp, is also audible at one or two moments. The disc has been beautifully transferred and enshrines yet more testimony to Moravec’s exalted status amongst contemporary musicians.

Jonathan Woolf

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