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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Complete piano works
see end of review for full listing
Inna Poroshina (piano)
rec. 1997-8, Kiev, Ukraine
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94085 [5 CDs: 271:16]

Experience Classicsonline



We now have three complete box sets of Dvořák’s piano music, and for some listeners that may sound like too many. Dvořák’s piano works are the overlooked part of his output, largely because they almost entirely comprise pleasing miniatures, with none of the obvious masterpieces which characterize his chamber music, orchestral works or operas. But there are little bits of treasure in the cycle, and if you haven’t explored this corner of the great composer’s output, you now have three excellent avenues of introduction.
 
Inna Poroshina’s budget-price set of the complete piano works was first released on Ess.a.y. Records in the 1990s and then again by Brilliant Classics a few years ago, to generally positive reviews. Now here it is again, with a generic photo of a piano on the cover and, tucked inside, the best booklet notes I’ve ever encountered in a Brilliant release. The extensive essay covers every work, mentions a few piano works which are curiously not included in this “complete” set - mostly youthful polkas and fragments - and only includes a few of Brilliant’s trademark typos (“oratorias”?). The competition here is a similarly slimline box from Supraphon, featuring Radoslav Kvapil, and a Naxos slip-case containing their five discs with pianist Stefan Veselka.
 
I will proceed work-by-work through Dvořák’s piano catalogue, and attempt to survey both the music and the performances at the same time. By far the largest piece Dvořák composed for piano is the suite of Poetic Tone Pictures, a group of thirteen miniature tone poems composed in 1889. The Poetic Tone Pictures are probably not just the largest but the weakest of his various cycles of piano miniatures; over its hour-long course are many a five-minute vignette with only two minutes’ worth of melodic material. Still, there are good bits to be found: the opening movement, “Twilight Way,” summarizes the suite’s potential and shortcomings, with a gorgeous main melody framed by rather pretentiously grand opening and closing chords. I’ll be honest: I don’t listen to this music much at all.
 
Other large-form pieces are hit-and-miss. The Theme and Variations from 1876 end in a rather Brahmsian mood of reassurance, but only after some surprisingly un-Dvořák-like bluster and banging. The Six Piano Pieces are rather run-of-the-mill, too.
 
Far better are the four Eclogues, eight Waltzes, and six Mazurkas. These are almost all unpretentious, charming, and rhythmically delightful; the eclogues also contain quotes from other Dvořák works, including a Slavonic dance (Op 72 No 1). The Silhouettes borrow multiple melodies from pieces like the Symphony No 2, but with even less dressing: the twelve rail-thin sketches together last sixteen minutes. The Mazurkas are exactly the happy products you would expect from the combination of the mazurka and Dvořák: solidly built, genial, falling satisfyingly on the keyboard.
 
CD 5 offers probably the most interesting program: besides the Humoresques (see below), we have the Suite in A, “American,” the most successful “big” work for piano the composer wrote, if big is the word for a suite that doesn’t quite last twenty minutes. There’s a lot of variety here, even some virtuosity in the second movement, and those wonderful tunes which abound in the composer’s later years. Better still, Inna Poroshina’s performance leaves nothing to be desired. The Lullaby and Capriccio, Dvořák’s final piano work, is also top-notch.
 
The most famous of Dvořák’s piano pieces - indeed, maybe the most famous thing he ever wrote, ironically enough - is the Humoresque No 7 in G flat, a tune everyone’s heard a thousand times. But the other humoresques are, frankly, even better. No 3 has a strong “American” feel to its folksy main tune, and the secondary material has hints of livelier dances still. Best of all is No 4, but in the hands of Stefan Veselka, who breaks down the barriers between measures and gives us a free-flowing jazz rhapsody. Yes, jazz: those impeccable opening bars with their well-targeted chromatic notes, the broken chords, and the rapid-fire trio with the syncopated chords. The humoresques are “American” works, and nowhere - except perhaps in No 3 - does it show more than here, where Dvořák anticipates, in different ways, Joplin, Tatum, and dare I say Brubeck.
 
But if you’re not listening to Stefan Veselka, you may not hear things that way. Poroshina plays by the rules and her interpretation is less free; Kvapil, fast-driving and fiercely Slavonic, sounds least jazzy of all, because he makes the works sound very Czech instead. Choose Kvapil for sheer excitement, Poroshina for the most straightforward account, and Veselka for an idiosyncratic leap across time and genre.
 
Various isolated miniatures fall into various places on the spectrum. The polka in E, dated 1860 and Dvořák’s third composition (!), is totally lovable, a great joy to behold and over in just two glittering minutes. The two Minuets, Op 28, are very plain, as are a handful of dull Album Leaves, but all the dumky (plural of the dumka dance) and furiants throughout the set are unsurprisingly poignant and energetic in turn.
 
What comparative conclusions can be made? I suppose that choosing between the three complete sets on offer is a bit like choosing a local sandwich shop: on the surface, they are not dissimilar, and no matter which you choose you will probably end up largely satisfied, but once you have made your choice you will surely find reasons to prefer it over the competition. Poroshina’s accounts are straightforward, elegant, and cleanly articulated; Kvapil’s are the most rhythmically “Czech” and therefore generally the fastest, and the Alto CD in which he plays Dvořák’s piano has added interest for historical reasons and for the piano’s lovely rich but clearly aging tone; Veselka is the most idiosyncratic, with his jazzy humoresques and generous rubato - his Lullaby, for instance, is much dreamier. The one work in which Poroshina definitely takes last place is the waltzes - too dainty and finicky compared to the others.
 
If you invest in one of these sets, though, you’ll be happy with it; I have two-and-a-half and like them roughly the same. The Poroshina is well-annotated (far above Brilliant’s average - exception: the total CD timings are off; CD 2 is 56 minutes, not 61) and in a slimmer box than Naxos has; that might be a deciding factor. I heard Veselka first; that might explain my own point of view.
 
More generally, I do think it’s worth pointing out that you ought to have one of these sets. Dvořák’s piano music has its gems, and much of the late music - the Humoresques, Lullaby, and American Suite - share the same tunefulness, confidence, and rich lovability which make his chamber music from that time so popular, though don’t expect profundity! The miniatures are “merely” charming and freshly-cut, a more southerly Grieg, and although the Poetic Tone Pictures are a bit overambitious, the Suite, Humoresques, and dumky are mighty fine works, and there are a few other hidden gems. If you haven’t yet heard this music, give it a try.  

Brian Reinhart 
 
CD 1 [50:22]
Theme and Variations, Op 36 (1876) [14:55]
Polka in E, B3 (1860) [2:17]
Silhouettes, Op 8 (1879) [16:49]
Two Minuets, Op 28 (1876) [9:19]
Dumka, Op 35 (1876) [7:03]
 
CD 2 [56:33]
Two Furiants, Op 42 (1878) [12:14]
Eight Waltzes, Op 54 (1880) [25:12]
Four Eclogues, B103 (1880) [13:59]
Scottish Dances, Op 41 [5:10]
 
CD 3 [48:12]
Four Album Leaves, B109 [7:20]
Six Piano Pieces, Op 52 [17:58]
Six Mazurkas, Op 56 [15:45]
Moderato in A, B116 [2:19]
Question, B128a [0:27]
Impromptu in D minor, B129 [4:25]
 
CD 4 [57:27]
Poetic Tone Pictures [57:27]
 
CD 5 [58:42]
Humoresques Op 101 (1894) [23:31]
Dumka and Furiant, Op 12 (1884) [7:31]
Two Little Pearls, B156 (1887) [2:59]
Album Leaf in E flat, B158 (1888) [0:50]
Suite in A, “American,” Op 98 (1894) [16:28]
Humoresque in F sharp, B138 (1884) [2:29]
Lullaby and Capriccio, B188 (1894) [4:55] 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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