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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Piano Works - Volume 4
Trois Polkas de salon Op.7 [11:35]
Stammbuchblätter Op.2 [10:47]
Charakterstücke Op.3 [7:34]
Skizzen Op.4 [8:12]
Skizzen Op.5 [10:35]
Trois Polkas poétiques Op.8 [10:11]
Melodien Schatz [7:29]
Jitka Čechová (piano)
rec. Bohemia Music Studio Prague, 24-25, 27 November, 1-3 December 2008. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU3844-2 [67.13] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is the fourth volume in Jitka Čechová’s Supraphon cycle of piano music by Smetana (see review of Volume 3). She is the current pianist in the world-renowned Smetana Piano Trio and has in her recorded catalogue a fine version of Dvorak’s infamously intractable Piano Concerto (Cube Bohemia CBCD 2426). As a former pupil of the acknowledged Smetana expert - and indeed creator of all the editions used on this recording - Jan Novotný, she is carrying forward a proud tradition of piano recitals produced by this label over many years. It should be said right from the outset that her interpretations are every bit as searching and musicianly as those of her esteemed teacher.  

The significance of piano music within Smetana’s body of work is far greater than the equivalent produced by Dvořák. For many years it was through playing the piano that Smetana made his modest living. Also, the orchestra was not as natural a medium for him as it was for Dvořák so that in many of these superficially slight works one can find Smetana wrestling with harmonic and structural ideas that make for far more compelling listening than the equivalent pieces by Dvořák which were written for the salon with little other intent.

This is the first of the volumes that I have heard and one does get a slight sense - in programming terms - of tidying up the loose ends of a complete cycle. All of the works here date from early in Smetana’s compositional life. They were written between the ages of 24 and 33 and can be broadly characterised as either belonging to one of his many Albumleaves or Polkas - both forms in which he composed extensively. During the early part of his career Smetana spent much of his time away from his native land seeking fame and fortune quite literally as an international concert pianist. He spent longest and was best received in Sweden. Here, he played recitals in the salons of the wealthy and influential and much of the music he wrote was aimed at this potential audience. Before he finally returned “for good” to Bohemia in 1861 - when he finally began describing himself as a composer and not a piano virtuoso - he approached the composer/impresario Carl Reinecke in Leipzig with a view to obtaining some concerts. For Reinecke he listed a repertoire which included twenty-four pieces by Liszt, thirty-one by Chopin, and twenty by Schumann. With that quantity of music literally in his head and fingers it should be no surprise to find influences of all three audible in the music recorded here. Smetana’s greatest achievement was to do for the Czech national dances - and primarily the polka - much the same as Chopin did for the Polish Mazurka and Polonaise.

This is immediately apparent in the very first track on this CD - rather blandly titled Polka in F sharp minor Op.7 No.1. The predicted hearty two-beat “um-cha” feel of a polka has been immediately subsumed into something far more lyrical and reflective. And it is with this wistful lyricism and song-like rubato that Jitka Čechová shows herself totally at ease. Comparisons of this piece - one of the longest on the CD running to 5:19 - with others cements the impression that here is a performer totally inside the composer’s musical sound-world. The well regarded William Howard on Hyperion sounds hesitantly four-square by contrast - trying to make it into a more traditional 2/4 polka. Time and again throughout the recital I was struck by the unforced beauty of Čechová’s phrasing with a technique easily able to cope with the demands made of it. The key is that nothing sounds arch or mannered. I was struck time and time again that here was an artist utterly inside and at ease with the idiom of this music. No “contractual obligation” album this! There is a danger with this style of music that it can lapse into the fey. Čechová can command a wide dynamic range when required - listen to It boils it roars Op.3 No.3 for powerful articulate playing but for much of this programme we are in the realm of essentially gentle sentiment without sentimentality. The same remains true for the bulk of the twenty-six pieces (averaging about 2:30 each) that make up this CD. There is a certain sameness to the expressive world being explored by the composer here and for all of Čechová’s advocacy it was not a disc to which one remained compellingly glued throughout its sixty-eight or so minutes.

The Supraphon engineers have reflected this by capturing the piano truthfully if not with overly rich sound. I have heard more beautiful piano recordings but I have to say this does suit the character of the music presented. My guess is that the bulk of purchasers will come to this having bought at least some of the earlier volumes so they will know well what to expect from both composer and performer. If you are interested in exploring Smetana’s piano works I would not recommend this as your first port of call. This is for the simple reason that he wrote far greater piano pieces later in his life. But for Smetana completists or admirers of Jitka Čechová’s art this is a compulsory purchase and for those like me a prompt to seek out the first three volumes in the series.

Nicholas Barnard 


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