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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Piano Works: Czech Dances – Series I (1877) [12:26]; Series II (1879) [44:14]; Bettina Polka (1883) [1:47]; The Peasant Woman (1879) [3:47]; Andante in F minor (1880) [0:55]; Romance in G minor (1881) [1:56]
Jitka Čechová (piano)
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague, 2-12 January, 18 February 2007. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU38432 [65:33]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a tremendous introduction to the piano music of Smetana. Much of Smetana's music remains little known outside his native territory of the Czech Republic; I include in this statement many of the operas – except, of course, Bartered Bride. Ivan Moravec has been known to encore some of Smetana's solo piano music, as indeed he did at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 2002. But it is surely a safe bet that this repertoire has remained hidden even to more seasoned collectors.

The two sets of Czech Dances presented here differ in length and manner of presentation. The first set comprises four polkas and lasts just over 12 minutes, while the second set presents a mix of mainly titled pieces. The first polka of the 1877 set is cast in F sharp minor and brings to mind a Chopin Mazurka in its veiled melancholy, a mood continued by the second (A minor). The last two polkas are in major mode, though. The third (F major) is infectiously happy and bright, a mood highlighted by Čechová's laughing staccati. Some of the writing in the fourth (B flat major) is decidedly tricky, not to say awkward, yet Čechová takes it all in her stride.

The opening Furiant of the second set of Czech Dances immediately takes us into a different world. It speaks of weightier matters - reflected in its length of 5:37. In fact the musical expression of his set probes decidedly deeper, despite the seemingly flippant nature of movement titles ('The Oats', 'Stamping Dance'). Čechová successfully projects significant national pride into the first dance (a Furiant) of the second series. Throughout she plays with the utmost sensitivity. Her emotional repertoire includes humour - the delightful eighth movement, 'The Bear' - and tenderenss - the middle section of 'Little Onion' and 'The Lancer'. The angularity and overt virtuosity of 'Stamping Dance' is expertly rendered here, as is the charming simplicity of 'The Astride Dance', with its superb gradual ritardando before it fades out of earshot. The final 'Jump Dance' is a helter-skelter ride, and a fitting end to a most enjoyable sequence of character pieces.

The final four pieces on the disc cover the final years of Smetana's life. The Bettina Polka is a revision of a sketch dating from 1859 and is a slight piece - ideal for use as an encore - while The Peasant Woman (another polka) was originally an orchestral piece of celebratory nature. Čechová retains its extrovert nature.

At 55 seconds the Andante in F minor hardly has time to make its mark. It is a mere album leaf, a fragment laden with an echt-F minorisch burden that expires gracefully. Finally comes, the G minor Romance, Smetana's last work for piano, which provides a thought-provoking end to this magnificent disc.

Bravo to Supraphon for including in its technical specifications for this disc the name of the piano tuner (Ivan Sokol). Most companies omit the piano technicians, yet credit (correctly) engineers, producers and assistants.

Those interested in exploring this repertoire further should locate a budget Regis disc of Smetana piano music played by the experienced Radoslav Kvapil (RRC1173). The disc's contents complement rather than replicate this Supraphon programme, including an interesting curio in the form of Smetana's Macbeth and the Witches. Kvapil plays selections of Polkas that predate the ones on the present disc, and thus helps to contextualise them – not to mention to underline the magnificence of the later works.

Colin Clarke



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