Smetana was the first Czech composer to make an international
impression. His role as leader of the nationalist movement owed
much to the encouragement and support of Franz Liszt. While he
is best known today as an opera composer and for the cycle of
nationalist symphonic poems, Ma Vlást, he was a virtuoso
pianist who composed a great deal for his own instrument, including
numerous pieces based on the Czech national dace, the polka.
It was in 1998 that András Schiff
recorded this varied programme of polkas for Teldec. They
date from the 1850s, a decade during which Smetana’s career
experienced many obstacles. He worked for some of the time
as director of music at Gothenburg in Sweden, such were his frustrations
in Prague. In addition he suffered terrible
personal tragedy, with the deaths in epidemics of both his
(first) wife and his young children.
These polkas therefore form in
some measure a personal testament, rather than merely a series
of lightweight dance numbers. For example, in the two collections
Opp. 12 and 13 entitled Souvenirs of Bohemia in the Form
of Polkas, we find a yearning chromaticism that is typical
of Smetana at his most emotionally committed. This is combined
with a subtlety of keyboard texture that is worthy of Chopin,
whose music he knew and admired. The longest piece on the
programme can be found in Op. 12, and the music justifies
its scale with a blend of folk-inspired melodies, rich harmonic
textures and a narrative line that indicates the ability to
articulate a dramatic narrative.
On the other hand the three Salon
(or 'Drawing Room') Polkas, Op. 7, which he dedicated to his
first wife, are among the most charming pieces imaginable.
András Schiff's playing has all those characteristics which
have combined to make him one of the leading artists of recent
times: assured technical command, sincerity of interpretation
and, particularly important in this repertoire perhaps, clarity
of expression in terms of inner part-writing. The recorded
sound is truthful and allows for the various strengths of
the performances to be experienced. Therefore this reissue
can safely be considered as at the top of the game, against
the alternatives of perfectly good performances of similar
though not identical repertoire from Jan Novotny in a 2 CD
set from Supraphon (SU3374-2) and Walter Klien in a 1964
recording now available on Tuxedo (6757 541 83820).
Schiff’s Maestro recording represents
excellent value at bargain price. Though the insert notes
tend towards generalisations about the composer’s life and
career rather than insights into his music, the production
standards are higher than those of several rival bargain labels.