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Přítomnost VI - Contemporary Czech Music
Jiří BERKOVEC (b.1922) Sonatina No. 1 in One Movement for String Orchestra (1956) [8:42]
Ilja HURNÍK (b.1922) Variations on a Theme of Pergolesi for Piano Four Hands (1983) [15:21]
Luboš SLUKA (b.1928) Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1956) [18:11]
Jan F. FISCHER (1921-2006) Aria for Two Harps (1974) [2:46]
Oldřich F. KORTE (b.1926) Philosophical Dialogues for Violin and Piano (1961-75) [15:35]
Štěpán LUCKÝ (b.1919) Ottetto per archi (1970) [12:04]
Jiří BERKOVEC (b.1922) Cottage and a Green (1960) [2:54]
Moravian Philharmonic Ostrava/Jiří Kares, Ilja Hurník (piano), Jana Hurník (piano), Jan Polášek (cello), Aleš Bílek (piano), Jana Boušková (harp), Kateřina Englichová (harp), Shizuka Ishikawa (violin), Oldřich F. Korte (piano), Prague Chamber Orchestra/Milos Konvalinka, Prague Radio Orchestra/Josef Hrncir, Vlasta Burian (tenor)
No recording dates or locations given. Recordings from composers’ archives
ARCO DIVA UP 0087-2 131 [73:17]
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Here’s an unhackneyed collection of Czech pieces dating from the 1950s to 1970s.

Berkovec’s Sonatina is for full orchestra not as listed in the heading and on the disc booklet/case. There are plentiful important contributions by the wind players in this work that saunters and ponders in summer heat. The whole effect is close to Barber and Prokofiev touched occasionally with a pungent neo-classical wand. Sluka’s Cello Sonata comes after Hurnik’s Pergolesi Variations where the innocent but robust little theme is held up to the composer’s jazzily dissonant refractor. The music is constantly engaging the mind, iridescent and spilling irritant pearlescent shrapnel across the soundstage. The Cello Sonata is a warmly cocooned neo-romantic piece in two movements a little redolent of Bax and Moeran. It is played with ardour and affection by Polášek and Bílek ending with a gentle throwaway pizzicato. The Fischer miniature for two harps is a winning piece of smilingly elegiac work - not too sleepy either. Korte’s Philosophical Dialogues are in four movements. After the tonal-melodic pleasures of the Sluka and Fischer there is more vinegar in this writing with harmonic rasp adding spice to the reserve of this dignified piece. Lucký’s Octet for Strings is heard in a grittily vivid and very closely recorded live concert recording freckled with the odd cough. This work has the abrasive athleticism of Barshai’s string orchestra orchestration of the Prokofiev Visions Fugitives and of Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies. Then comes a complete change of stylistic gear with a slice of music theatre. Berkovec’s Cottage and a Green is sung with high camp character by the wonderful Vlasta Burian decorated with cackling laughter and birdsong. It reminded me a little of the Naxos-Milken anthologies of Jewish operetta songs.

A few words about the composers. Lucký was trained in Prague, worked as a critic and has written concertos for piano, cello, violin a double concerto for violin and piano, more than 100 film scores and an opera Midnight Surprise. Hurnik was born in Silesia which he fled when the Nazis invaded. He became a pupil of Vitezslav Novák and Vilem Kurz. He has written a Symphony in C and the oratorio Noah. He garnered a reputation as an exponent of Debussy and Janáček. Berkovec was born in Pilsen. He spent some time in a senior position with Supraphon. He has also been active as a radio critic and lecturer. Sluka had plans to study and work with Auric and Honegger in Paris but was denied this by political obstruction. He has been active as a freelance composer and has held high office in various Czech music organisations. Fischer studied at the Prague Conservatoire and has also held various official positions in the musical life of the then Czechoslovakia. Korte’s far from untypical story took him from concentration camp to communist prison. His determination to adhere to non-material values is reflected in his deeply serious Philosophical Dialogues.

This disc is as you can see the sixth in the Arco Diva series. It is packed with good things and discoveries. It might be criticised for being too miscellaneous but I was very pleased to encounter this music - and none of it is rebarbatively avant-garde.

Such a pity that we are told almost nothing about these individual pieces in the booklet. We are given details of the composers but some background on the music would have been welcome.

Rob Barnett


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