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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]

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Novák’s staunchest champion in his music for the piano was František Rauch. True, in more recent years Martin Vojtíšek has garnered a share of the kudos for his recordings, of which I’d especially recommend the Sonata Eroica on Supraphon SU3575-2 131 and the earlier disc for Panton, which included Mládí (Panton 81 9007-2 131). It should be noted that Vojtíšek plays the last-named complete and that in his Supraphon traversal of 1969 Rauch played selections - substantial ones certainly, but still not complete. In a sense though these are in many ways complementary sets because Vojtíšek gives us the pleasurable Barcarolles Op.10, At Dusk Op.13, the Op. Serenades and other most valuable repertoire. Rauch’s set lays no claims to completeness but its claims on the admiration of the listener are pretty well unstinting. He recorded this body of work over a seven-year period and served his one time composition teacher in Prague, Novák, with the highest dedication.

It’s valuable to have the lightly didactic Sonatinas on one disc. The 1971 Supraphon sound is rather shallow but that won’t dim the pleasure you’ll derive from them. There’s a Schubertian lyricism in microcosm in the First, a feeling only intensified by the descriptive titles that would so appeal to the young - The Nightingale Darted Skyward and Rejoices, for instances, which grabs the eye and mind rather more intensely than the more prosaic Allegro molto moderato (though Toscanini would doubtless disagree). The liquidity and legato of the same Sonatina’s middle movement, with its embedded cuckoo greetings, is equally charming and the delightful left hand pointing of the finale (Merry Company) is full of chattering and shade. Schumannesque descriptiveness courses through the Second with a full workout in its finale for the right hand, whilst the Elysian central panel of the Third has its own limpid delicacy. The Fourth features a dramatically shaking Dragon - and if you want to know where Vaclav Trojan, himself from Plzen as was Rauch, developed his baroque-dancery turn to the same sonata’s Finale. Novák taught Trojan in Prague, as he did the young Rauch, and it’s tempting to see in Trojan’s music for Prince Bayaya a fond reminiscence of Rescue by Prince Charming from this Sonatina. Crepuscular glints haunt the central movement of the delicious Fifth, nature painting at its most affectionate and undemanding, and hymnal richness concludes the Sixth, the only two-movement Sonatina of the set. These aren’t intellectual works nor are They part of his pantheistic or even Moravian-Slovakian musical agendas. But they’re delightful.

The Sonata Eroica was his big two-movement work (though in three distinct and conventional sections) of 1900. Alternately powerful and ruminative it reveals Novák’s complete command of pianistic rhetoric, even when it becomes quite knotty and thorny, as it does in the central paragraphs despite the suitably heroic and triumphant first movement ending. The combined slow movement and finale use rhythms solidly based in the folkloric soil with an increasing lyric infusion of exultation. Rauch plays it with utter concentration and commitment. The bigger work on the second disc is Pan, a nearly hour long five-movement tone poem. It’s probably better know in orchestral guise and Jílek’s recording of it has garnered some praise – though it’s very seldom performed in concert because it’s so difficult to programme. Nature writing and the quest for human love are the twin motors of Pan and the prelapsarian days of 1910, the last few years of Austro-Hungarian hegemony, were probably the perfect moment for this fluorescence of longing and rapture. From the pan-piping treble of the Prologue, with its luscious stepped and terraced chords, we feel the full weight of his Virgilian inspiration. Passionate amplitude (wonderfully contained by the Supraphon engineers) drives The Mountains and the third movement, The Sea, glitters and ripples almost as much as Iberia. Rauch digs in with evenness and depthful drama. He’s perhaps at his greatest in The Forest where the swirling mysteries and impressionistic obscurities gradually give way to refined calm and increasing ease. Dramatic and also coquettish Novak’s The Woman is by far the longest of the five movements. For Novák Woman was the Eternal, and his almost painterly obsession, Schiele-like in its driving and nervous intensity (though not perhaps in its ambiguity), was a constant feature. Romantic yet uneasy, questing yet uncertain this movement is riven with his own uncertainties, infatuations, dualities and fears. Insistent and finally burnished with romantic glow it’s also a projected self-portrait of infinite suggestiveness; far more naked and revealing than perhaps the composer himself knew.

It’s some way from the urgent desires of Pan to the Bagatelles. Here we find in the First the influence of Brahms even more than Dvořák and a capricious dance in the fourth and last that shows that the creator of the Sonata Eroica could unbend just as charmingly as his teacher Dvořák or Smetana. My May is another of his nature-drenched creations, a ten-minute hymnal to the beauties of field, meadow and Slovakian dance, the Bohemian-born Novák being one of the staunchest admirers of the Slovak lands. Full of suggestive nature calls and scurrying woodland life there’s a dash of Schumann and Grieg here as well. Songs on Winter Nights, written during 1902-03, does show further influences, primarily that of Debussy though the tempestuous second movement does show how harmonically advanced was Novák’s thinking by this stage. The Third Song, Christmas Night, is spare, with bell peals and the final one is the most virtuosic with the composer indulging his more extrovert Lisztian instincts to usher in Carnival Night. Youth (Mládí) consists, in this selection, of twelve little pieces, which Rauch plays with great affection. Longing (No.6) has a certain noble antique romance feel (a tie in with that almost contemporaneous Sonatina) whilst No.8 is a delicate lullaby, and there are some contrastive dances later on and a naughty Devil’s Polka to conclude matters. This set has much in common with the Sonatinas, from the nostalgia, the descriptive simplicities and the child-like visions to the nature loving and Novák’s concentrated pictorialism.

This is clearly a benchmark set for collectors. The recorded sound varied over the period but it’s never less than good. The notes are in Czech, German and English and cannily quote from the composer’s reminiscences. Add Vojtíšek and you’ll have a powerful collection of the piano music in your library.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

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