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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Complete Solo Piano Music
Recorded 5-8 October 1999, Studio 10, DeutschlandRadio Berlin, Germany
Stefan Veselka (piano)
Dates and locations as above
NAXOS 8.505205 [5:05:03] (Numbers and timings of individual discs as below)



Volume 1 (8.557474) [64:32]

Two Minuets, op.28/B.58, Dumka in D minor, op.35/B.64, Theme with Variations in A flat major, op.36/B.65, Three Album Leaves, 8 Waltzes, op.54/B.101
Recorded 7-9 April 1999, Studio 10, DeutschlandRadio Berlin, Germany
Volume 2 (8.557475) [56:52]

2 Furiants, op.42/B.85, 4 Eclogues, op.56/B.103, 4 Compositions without Title, 6 Pieces, op.52/B.110
Recorded 5-8 October 1999, Studio 10, DeutschlandRadio Berlin, Germany
Volume 3 (8.557476) [71:29]

Dumka and Furiant, op.12/B.136-7, 2 Little Pearls, B.156, Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85/B.161
Recorded February 1995, Sonia-Henie Art Centre and Sofienberg Church, Oslo, Norway
Volume 4 (8.557477) [63:56]

8 Humoresques, op.101/B.187, 6 Mazurkas, op.56/B.111, Silhouettes, op.8/B.98
Recorded June 1998, Stavanger Concert Hall, Stavanger, Norway
Volume 5 (8.557478) [38 :29]

Polka in E major, B.3, Scottish Dances, op.41/B.74, Humoresque, B.138, Impromptu, B.129, Suite in A – "American", op.98/B.184, 2 Pieces, B.188

 

 

Although Naxos tells us that “Dvořák’s piano works are perhaps the least known of all his music”, I should have said that dubious honour belonged to his songs and smaller vocal works, which have never been systematically explored to the best of my knowledge (even the operas are no longer quite the closed book they used to be). It is true that we rarely encounter the piano music on the concert platform but the musically curious have had reasonable access to it over the last three decades or so, ever since Radoslav Kvapil’s series of six LPs recorded for Supraphon in 1967-70 and issued, first separately and then in a box with very detailed notes and some thoughtful observations on Dvořák’s piano style by Kvapil himself. I am not sure about the current availability of the Kvapil discs but I presume they could be hunted down if there were still a pressing reason for preferring them to this new cycle by Stefan Veselka, a pianist of Norwegian birth but of Czech parentage and a relative of Janáček.

Kvapil’s discs are entitled "Piano Works", those of Veselka are more specifically claimed as the "Complete Solo Piano Music", yet each pianist manages to include something that the other misses. On the face of it this seems strange, since Dvořák is not one of those composers whose works are still being researched in old libraries; everything, even the most lightweight juvenilia, has been lovingly gathered together by his compatriots and published in the Complete Edition, so if you want to record any aspect of his work complete all you have to do is take the relevant volume(s) and play it (or them) from cover to cover.

In Kvapil’s case space may have been a factor. The accompanying essay refers to a polka called "Forget-Me-Not" of c.1855/6 (with the trio provided by the composer’s teacher) and another polka from 1860; it dismisses them as "of historical interest only" and they are not recorded. Veselka gives us the second of them, B.3, (a first recording, I suppose) and it proves charming if hardly vintage Dvořák, so what about “Forget-Me-Not”?

The same essay also loftily refers to a decision to ignore "two children’s compositions called Two Little Pearls from 1887" (would one also omit Schumann’s and Bartók’s children’s compositions from a complete recorded edition?). Veselka plays them and they prove charming in their small-scale way – and surely still useful additions to the repertoire of children’s pieces by "real" composers.

On the other hand, Kvapil has seven mazurkas while Veselka has only six. This is because Kvapil concludes with a piece in D which Dvořák had originally intended as no.4 but then rejected and replaced with a much more characteristic piece. I agree that a complete edition should include it, but I would have put it in appendix at the end rather than run the risk of having lazy listeners supposing the composer intended it as a grand finale to the cycle. Rather for the same reason, while I agree with both pianists in their decision to record all six of the “Four Pieces” op.52 (Dvořák withheld the last two and the set of four makes a better-balanced whole) I would have kept the rejected pieces separate.

Since both of them play a set of "3 Album Leaves" you might suppose that the pieces would be the same but no, just one is (Kvapil’s no.2 is Veselka’s no.1) while Kvapil’s other two are the first and third of Veselka’s 4 untitled pieces. The third of Veselka’s Album Leaves (another first recording I suppose) is a little gem; a pity it only lasts 56 seconds. Kvapil would appear to have an Impromptu in G not played by Veselka, but in fact it is the second of Veselka’s untitled pieces. So if, conversely, Veselka’s untitled pieces look like a new discovery, Kvapil actually has three of them (with titles) and only the last is new.

In short, neither is wholly complete, but they are both a good deal completer than Dvořák himself would have wished, though in the case of the four Eclogues his withholding of the music is quite inexplicable – they are among the most attractive piano pieces he wrote, their gracious dance rhythms assuming human dimensions worthy of Schubert.

Having got this out of the way, what of the music and the performances? I must say that, as a pianist and ardent lover of Dvořák, one of the early delusions of my life was the realisation that he had not written for my instrument any great sonatas or other extended pieces to put alongside the finest symphonies, the cello concerto, the best string quartets and Rusalka. Listening to these two sets has made me realise that I have been insufficiently appreciative of what he did write, for his personality shines through all but a few of these pieces, the piano writing sounds effective, however it may look on the page, and through the homely dance rhythms and romantic melodies there are more than occasional glimpses of a Schubertian transience of life. The high points are not always where one would expect them; I have mentioned the Eclogues, which the composer actually withheld, and the untitled pieces have much of the same quality. The Poetical Tone Pictures, into which he put much effort, perhaps hoping to create his pianistic masterpiece, have been dismissed as laboured and overwritten, yet both pianists are able to show that, if you study them long enough for their difficulties to become no longer apparent to the listener, what emerges is characteristic, satisfying and, indeed, poetic.

Putting on Veselka’s first record we are struck by the warmth and mellowness of his tone, captured in a richly sonorous recording, and by the freedom of his approach. All the way through he gives you the idea that he is improvising the music on the spot, yet rarely does this get out of hand. Turning to Kvapil we find him sometimes straighter, sometimes freer still, but even when he is straighter the effect seems more discontinuous; he lacks Veselka’s ability to make his rubato actually help to clarify the sense of the music. Compare them in the first of the op.54 Waltzes and you will find Kvapil separating the music into short cells while Veselka leads you onwards. On the other hand in some of the non-dance-based smaller pieces, such as the untitled piece which Kvapil calls Impromptu in G, Kvapil creates a sense of self-communing which leaves Veselka sounding relatively uncaring.

I was definitely disappointed by Veselka’s Humoresques; these pieces can easily degenerate into piquant little moments without any real shape, and that is what happens here. Given Kvapil’s track record I expected him to be worse still, but evidently he realised the problem and binds the whole cycle together by somehow relating each moment to what has gone before (even if the tempo changes); furthermore, he must have been in a state of grace on that particular day, for I can only describe his performance as truly inspired. So I won’t be throwing out my Kvapil set and ultimately in both sets the pianist’s love of the music shines through.

All the same, taken overall Veselka does seem to have the edge, though not to the extent that you need to go out and get him if you have Kvapil, but this is where I would direct first time listeners. The more modern recording and the Naxos price (but note that it could all have been fitted onto four discs) are added points in his favour; the booklet notes (by Veselka himself) are much briefer but at least they are to the point. The discs come in a box but each has a jewel-case (and number) of its own which seems to indicate than they can be bought separately. At this price I would say get the lot, but if you are not sure, try Vol.2 first.

In conclusion, I hope that pianists (and record companies) who may be interested will not suppose that these two pianists have, between them, said all there is to say. The B minor Mazurka, for example, a profoundly touching, melancholic piece, is perfunctory in Veselka’s hands and only just about acceptable in Kvapil’s. This is a rare disappointment but it reminds us that so far we have had no Dvořák piano performances on record of the stature of Rubinstein’s Chopin or Gieseking’s Debussy.

And now, Naxos, how about the complete songs?

Christopher Howell

 



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