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North Pacific Music

Tomas SVOBODA (b. 1939)
String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartets: No. 1 op. 29 (1960) [10:51]; No. 2 op. 151 (1994) [25:44]; No. 3 op. 175 (2002) [19:55]; No. 4 op. 179 (2002) [19:36]
Martinů Quartet
rec. 27 January, 23 April, 16 September 2005, Arco Diva studio, Prague Domovina, Czech Republic. DDD

North Pacific Music

Tomas SVOBODA (b. 1939)
String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartets: No. 5 op. 180 (2003) [18:33]; No. 6 op. 185 (2005) [17:06]; No. 7 op. 187 (2005) [20:53]; No. 8 op. 190 (2006) [19:34]
Martinů Quartet
rec. 17 May, 11 October 2006, Arco Diva studio, Prague Domovina, Czech Republic. DDD

AmazonUK AmazonUS

Tomas SVOBODA (b. 1939)
Overture of the Season op. 89 (1978) [8:42]
Marimba Concerto op. 20 (1993) [25:48]
Symphony No. 1 Of Nature op. 20 (1956) [36:02]
Niel DePonte (marimba)
Oregon Symphony/James DePreist
rec. 9-10 January 2000 (Overture, Marimba); 13 June 2000 (symphony), Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon. DDD
ALBANY TROY604 [70:59]

Svoboda website

Tomas SVOBODA (b. 1939)
Piano Concerto No. 1 op. 71 (1974) [18:40]
Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 134 (1987) [44:21]
Norman Krieger (piano) (2); Tomas Svoboda (2)
Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra/Neal Gittleman
rec. 20-21 February, 20-21 November, 1999, Montgomery County’s Memorial Hall. DDD
ARTISIE 4 1006 [63:01]
Experience Classicsonline

Svoboda was born in Paris of Czech parentage, spent his early years in Boston and moved to Czechoslovakia in 1946. He graduated in percussion, composition and conducting after studies with Miloslav Kabeláč (1908 - 1979). He returned with his family to the USA in 1964 where he studied composition with Halsey Stevens (1908-1989) and Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970). He has taught for upwards of three decades at Portland University. His worklist includes amongst many other works:-
Symphony No. 1 Of Nature Op.20 for Orchestra (1956-57) [36:02]
Symphony No. 2 for Orchestra, Op.41 (1963-64) [28:00]
Symphony No. 3 for Organ and Orchestra, Op.43 (1965) [28:00]
Symphony No. 4 Apocalyptic for Orchestra, Op.69 (1975) [27:00]
Symphony No. 5 (in unison) for Orchestra, Op.92 (1978) [33:00]
Symphony No. 6 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.137 (1991) [38:00]

Concerto e Gioco for Two Guitars, Op.108 (1982) [14:00]
Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Returns), Op.125 (1986) [23:00]
Concerto for French Horn and Tape (CD), Op.93 (1979) [28:00]
Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, Op.148 (1995) [25:48]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.77 (1975) [19:00]
Concerto for Woodwind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon), Op.111 (1983-97) [16:00]
Concerto for Two Violins and Strings, Op.191

Svoboda’s eight string quartets are performed here by the dedicated and utterly committed Martinů Quartet (Lubomír Havlák (violin I); Petr Matĕják, David Danel (guest on vol. 2) (violin II); Jan Jísa (viola); Jitka Vlašánková (cello))

The ten minute long First Quartet was written in Prague. It has a lively resinous folk character influenced, so it seems, by the folk arrangements so popular on Plzen Radio. The effect is rather like Dvořák but fundamentally salted as is the much longer and Martinů No. 1, by the shade of Ravel. At other times the music bustles with a lively rustic style as in the more demonstrative moments in Howells' In Gloucestershire Quartet. The big Second Quartet is from 1997 - some four decades later. It is a very different work from its predecessor though still lyrical at its core. This singing core is hedged with overcast skies and a sense of threat. There are some truly striking invention including the microscopic genial dances at 3:20. After a delicate pizzicato Andantino we return to a degree of haunted uncertainty and something subtly close to fear. A thunderously and pugnaciously impassioned finale concludes proceedings. The Third Quartet is buzzingly intense - rather like Tippett at his highest voltage setting. The Third, also in three movements, has more insect-like buzzing and diving - similar to the opening of Martinů Symphony 6. This revolves around a carefree melodic contour. The early 2000s, 9:11 and the Iraq War, also saw the appearance of Quartet 4 which events, the composer tells us, is part of the work's weave. It's a very moving piece in two very substantial movements, tragic, sorrowing, yet in control, not hysterical and quietly consolatory. While also tough shows links with the Second and Third Quartets while stepping forward into a new emotional realm.

Volume 2 of the quartets launches, logically enough, with the three movement, lissomly singing No. 5. This bridges back four decades to his First Quartet although now there is a calm dissonant burr to the harmonic scheme. It is a deeply satisfying work with a fine blend of harmonic and rhythmic intrigue. The Sixth Quartet is typically - as we can now say of this composer - haunting with links to the tragedy-honed Shostakovich Quartets both in rhythm and harmony. The acidic edge is moderated in the final Lento moderato but we are still led through a landscape of louring skies. All four of these quartets are succinct structures running to around 20 minutes - give or take. The Seventh Quartet thrums with tension, recovering for a small measure of dance-like abandon in the final Vivace. The Eighth Quartet is in a single movement approaching twenty minutes. This 2006 work is tender and pensive, melodic and gentle. In parts it is as inward as the early parts of Suk's Wenceslas Meditation. The silvery Tippett-echoing filigree at 9:40 is very pleasing. The work operates as a sung cavalcade of reflections and memories. This work together with the First and the Fifth are the string quartet places to start with in getting to know Svoboda. It’s very well worth the effort.

The recording of the string quartet across each of these two CDs is exemplary in its close-up intimacy.

The orchestral music discs take us, courtesy of enlightened sponsorship and via Artisie and valiant Albany, first to a whirling overture. Svoboda's Overture of the Season is from 1978. It is said to be his most played work which is no surprise given its genial celebratory nature. For me this delightful work echoes with suggestions of Smetana's Bartered Bride, the earnest energy of Arnold Rosner, the bell-rung underscore of William Mathias and even of Malcolm Arnold. There's also a touch of Janáček's Sinfonietta at the end.

The 25 minute Marimba Concerto is here played by its dedicatee. The composer is keen to tap into the instrument's romantic soul and yet to take account of its limited ability to project. This the orchestra and recording do. It's a work of intricate detailing which I confess to finding at first resistant to pleasurable appreciation. It was the warmly romantic second movement that won me round. The rampant Vivace is leavened by the sort of singing voices found in the string quartets 1, 5 and 8.

Svoboda's First Quartet is from 1960 and the First Symphony from 1956. Each is a product of his Czech sojourn (1946-1964). The Symphony enjoyed the honour of being conducted by Václav Smetáček - or perhaps the honour is the other way around. Time will tell. The work has a placid burnished singing quality with its Dvořák-like melodic-set and some gentle folksy and bird-song cross-currents. The four movements have their meed of stimulating ideas. These might well find you looking at Svoboda as if he were a link with Fibich through Beethoven's Pastoral, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Very pleasant music written by a seventeen year old - though the composer gave the symphony a makeover in 1982.

Good notes enhance this Albany edition as does the total commitment of the Oregon Symphony and James DePreist.

The final disc in this survey couples Svoboda's two piano concertos. We start with the Second Piano Concerto, from 1989 which was premiered in Charleston West Virginia by Garrick Ohlsson. The first movement, at 25 minutes, is longer than the whole of the First Concerto. The movement buzzes with the impatience of the string quartets before opening the way for the ringing piano solo. Bell tones jazzed with a rhetorical dissonant edge dominate the scene. The composer occasionally allows himself a degree of romantic excursion. The middle movement has the long lines and dignity of the bassoon as centrepiece with player Jennifer Kelley Speck in the limelight. The finale begins in a raucous barrage, a fugal string storm, playful intensely concentrated writing offset by a background contour that sounds like a brother to the Dies Irae. The soloist’s striding obsidian and hard-struck piano writing is exciting. The composer writes that this work represents the “unification of my soul with the cathedral bells of Frankfurt”. This is a work of earnest profundity and sprinting excitement rather than emotional delight. It is closer in this respect to Quartets 6 and 7 rather than to Quartets 1 or 5 or 8.

At 18:24 we can hardly call the 1974 First Piano Concerto a “pocket concerto”. It is concise and varied. The rhythmic dimension is strong again as is the volleying cannonade of notes at the start and close. This is not as tumultuous or as unrelenting as the Mennin Piano Concerto but the rushing section does recall that work. Svoboda, who is also the adept soloist, at times uses a hard-edged Waltonian-yet dissonant language. This is lightened at the start and end by carefree music more nearly related to that of his American contemporaries such as Copland and Roy Harris.

These four discs furnish a Svoboda perspective around the core of the eight quartets. The orchestral discs sketch in his creative work during the four decade gap between the First Quartet and its successor.

Svoboda is fascinating. His life story’s geographical history is as varied as that of Tcherepnin or Martinů. His music partakes of both American and Czech culture. His Quartets are for me a special discovery as is the brilliant Overture.

There are several more CDs. To find out more go to

Rob Barnett


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