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Vítěslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Six Sonatinas Op. 54 (1919-20 Sch111): No. 1 in C major Spring; No. 2 in A minor From Children's Lives; No. 3 in F major Spring; No. 4 in E minor Fairy-Tale; No. 5 in D minor Brigand; No. 6 in C major Christmas;
Sonata Eroica Op. 24 (1900 Sch68)
Pan Op. 43 (1910 Sch96)
Bagatelles Op. 5 (1899 Sch63)
My May Op. 20 (1899 Sch61)
Songs on Winter Nights Op. 30 (1902-03 Sch77)
Youth Op. 55 selection (1920 Sch112)
František Rauch (piano)
rec. Prague 1969, 1970, 1957, 1976. ADD
SUPRAPHON SU 3744-2 113 [64.41+76.23+57.21]


Rauch is to the piano literature of Novák what Iris Loveridge, Joyce Hatto and Eric Parkin have been to Bax and Barbagallo and Tocco to Macdowell. He brings to each session a considered yet never ossified approach which captures the playfulness alongside the erotic (a subject common to Suk and Janáček and to Fibich in his Things Lived and Dreamed), the heroic and the poetic.

As you will have seen from the headnote the piano music here was recorded over a twenty year period. Not only is there a variety of audio quality (not as disconcerting as you may fear) but the range of the music is wide. This takes us from the Six Sonatinas (classy didactic pieces consciously childhood-picturesque and in some cases Mozartian) to such works as the spiritually elevated and demanding Songs on Winter Nights, Pan and Sonata Eroica.

The Second Sonatina's Lullaby is absolutely outstanding - a tender example from a lullingly tender genre. Otherwise there are traces of Debussy and Macdowell in these bright and often playful character pieces. I wonder if they are used in the UK for teaching purposes. I certainly hope so. The Fifth Sonatina, Brigand, is rather out of the rest of the sequence being serious and even heroic. Novák seems to have some romanticised sympathy with the highland brigands - rather like Szymanowski in Harnasie. The notes by Vit Roubicek point out that the Sonatinas hover between the teaching piano stool and the concert hall. The Fifth Sonata is much closer to a recital piece than to a teacher-pupil vehicle.

The childhood portrait theme of the Sonatinas is continued in the Youth cycle of which a sampling of eleven pieces are offered. Youth belongs to the year before the Sonatinas so their kinship is not surprising. The most affecting pieces are Lullaby (CD3 tr.18) and Moonlit Night. The dances reach towards the dance tradition of Smetana and Dvořák although the Devil's Polka throws in a few iron-hearted surprises as well as the suggestion of Peter and the Wolf.

As befits a pupil of Dvořák, Novák's early piano solos took a fairly unadorned and uncomplicated approach to his folk-music inspirations from Moravia and Slovakia. At this early stage in his career the sort of ecstatic synthesis later applied by Szymanowski to the folk music of Zakopane and the Polish highlands was beyond Novák's reach. It was not always to be so. The Four Bagatelles and the cycle My May all betray this simple rustic approach in which charm avoids condescension; affection for village life banishes any element of caricature.

The 1899 Bagatelles have the polished innocence of a sampler - very much the slight Macdowell and Dvořák. From the same year and same 'style-sheet' comes My May. Only in its very brief Tranquillo do we glimpse the deeper Novák - the quiet musing of Pan in the thickets of the forest.

The piano sound, dating from 1957, narrows for Songs on a Winter Night. Here the ecstatic-pastoral is achieved across the four songs (Moonlit Night; Stormy Night; Christmas Night; Carnival Night). In this work the ability to process and synthesise folk material into something more universal, distilled and magical begins to arrive. While this is the oldest recording here it is also one of the most atmospheric and the one to which I will return most often alongside the cycle Pan.

The Sonata Eroica dates from 1900. In fact folk influences are pretty much subdued. The Sonata, which is affecting, is reminiscent of nothing so much as MacDowell's sonatas, one of which is also called Eroica but with a darker Lisztian presence than one finds in the American composer's sonata quartet.

Pan, a cycle of five substantial pieces running in total to 54 minutes, is subtitled 'A Poem in Tones'. It was written at the age 40 and revels in subjects close to Novák’s heart: pantheism and the love of women and nature. The titles of the five thematically linked pieces are: Prologue; The Mountains; The Sea; The Forest; Woman. The last movement is stormily passionate - possibly his most erotic piece alongside the other explicitly titled sequence Erotikon. Both Pan and Erotikon also exist in orchestral format. Pan has been recorded by Marco Polo with the Brno orchestra conducted by Frantisek Jilek. The orchestral Erotikon has not been recorded but an off air tape made again by the Brno orchestra and Jilek has been circulating on the tape underground for a decade or so.

Pan is a work of full maturity, witness the impressionistic opening which becomes increasingly assertive veering in its course from Grieg to Bax to Debussy. The Mountains sings out in diamond glints and sparkle, not at all like Delius but with a sense of ice-floes and heroism suggestive of the spellbound atmosphere of Novák’s orchestral In the Tatras. The Sea is a restless essay with the great waves rolling at the surface, currents cross-cutting the marine-scape and with oceanides disporting amid waves breaking on seaweed reefs and rocky shore. When compared with other 'sea works' the sense of the spray and the salt is tangible by comparison with say Haakon Børresen's Second Symphony The Sea. This is much more in keeping with Sainton's The Island or Atterberg West Coast Pictures Symphony not to mention Novák’s own dramatic cantata for orchestra, chorus and soloists, The Storm. The Forest is a pulse-stilling rhapsodic journey inflected in much the same way as the more perfumed Cyril Scott solos and like parts of Bax's Spring Fire and Ludolf Nielsen's extremely effective Forest Walk (recorded on DaCapo). The final movement, Woman, is the longest at an immense 17 minutes (the others are 7.38 7.57, 9.20, 11.37). Once again the progress has the semblance of instinctive spontaneity like an extended Bax solo. The passion in the finale is a steady release rather than a savage climax. The recording of Pan was made in 1984 and the piano sound is excellent.

An invaluable library addition to Supraphon's Archiv series which includes such disregarded monuments as Paul Kletzki's Beethoven symphonies as well as the treasury of Czech Philharmonic recordings of Ravel and Debussy made by Pedrotti, Fournet and Baudo.

Rauch had Novák's music in his blood. He eloquently and with great sensitivity captures the playfulness of this music alongside the erotic, the heroic and the poetic.

Rob Barnett


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