Pavel Zemek NOVÁK (b.1957)
24 Preludes and Fugues (1989-2006)
[6] Preludes and Fugues, Book One (Old Testament) [21:39]
[6] Preludes and Fugues, Book Two (Old Testament) [25:50]
[6] Preludes and Fugues, Book Three (New Testament) 'The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt among us' [17:46]
[6] Fugues and Postludes, Book Four (New Testament) 'Landscapes of the Lamb' [11:02]
William Howard (piano)
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, 6-13 August 2009. DDD

This is the first recording of Moravian composer Pavel Zemek Novák's 24 Preludes and Fugues. The work is divided into four sections, two Old Testament and two New Testament books, composed over a period of seventeen years. The last book actually consists of six Fugues with Postludes, with the final piece a 'Parallel Fugue and Postlude'.

In an interesting essay on his website entitled Art of the Fugue, English composer David Matthews notes that Novák "has a radically unorthodox attitude to fugue: the first fugue, evoking the creation of heaven and earth, has only one voice, and no counterpoint; the sixth fugue is built on a one-note theme and employs only seven notes altogether." These remarks were written when Novák had still only completed the two Old Testament books; now that the other, New Testament is finished, Matthews' enthusiasm for Novák's work is undiminished. As well as furnishing the booklet notes, he writes in his conclusion: "I have no doubt that these 24 Preludes and Fugues are one of the finest piano works of our time."

That leaves Matthews open to polite suggestion that he listen to more music, and Champs Hill Records to accusations of possibly counter-productive hype. The title alone, with its strong association with Bach (and Shostakovich), is surely pressure enough. So it is surprising, perhaps, to discover music that is anything but pretentious: non-radical, unostentatious, intangible, arcadian, limpid, concentrated, extemporised, ethereal.

Matthews likens the Preludes and Fugues to Ligeti's Etudes; true to a degree, but it is more than Ligeti's atheism that differentiates them, and such a comparison runs the risk of making them seem more forbidding than they are. Novák's frequently bell-like sonorities are mainly diatonic, and there is plenty of melody and tonal harmony to satisfy most tastes, even if it is more often fragmented than not. There are musical references to Scarlatti, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and others.

The Preludes and Fugues are undeniably devotional - Novák's own deep religiosity is reflected in the various Biblical subtitles, not just of the New Testament books, but also in the Old Testament, where every Prelude and Fugue bears a title, from the opening 'Creation of Heaven and Earth' to the final 'Isaiah (2)'. However, searchers for spiritual enlightenment may be better off with Bach - Novák's sometimes atonal idiom is likely just a little too modern for the old religions, and the overarching mood is more one of mysticism.

Novák makes considerable and impressive use of rests and pedalling throughout his work, right from the very first note: the second is heard a full ten seconds later. The Old Testament pieces are individually crafted, whereas those of the New Testament are in the nature of dovetailing parts of a larger whole. The Preludes/Postludes and Fugues are mutually contrastive, with any bravura writing generally, though not exclusively, reserved for the former.

The Preludes and Fugues were written for the underrated but excellent British pianist William Howard, also known as one quarter and founder of the Schubert Ensemble, and who gave the premier performance in 2007. Despite its unassuming superstructure, the technical base of Novák's music is extremely demanding, both in terms of sheer stamina and the degree of technical prowess required. Howard is absolutely equal to it, completing his quasi-pilgrimage adroitly and poetically.

Sound quality is very good. The CD booklet is slim-line but informative, and has a nice colour photo of Novák with Howard during recording. This may or may not be one of the finest contemporary works for piano - it is probably too early to say. But for sheer scale of invention at least it must go on the shortlist.

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Detailed Track-Listing
Book One (Old Testament)
1 Prelude One: The Creation of Heaven and Earth [2:17]
2 Fugue One: The Creation of Man [1:52]
3 Prelude Two: The Age of the Patriarchs [1:37]
4 Fugue Two: Noah [1:41]
5 Prelude Three: The Flood [1:22]
6 Fugue Three: Noah's Ark [2:14]
7 Prelude Four: The Departure of Abraham [0:57]
8 Fugue Four: Abraham and Isaac [0:47]
9 Prelude Five: The Burning Bush [3:02]
10 Fugue Five: Moses [1:04]
11 Prelude Six: Saul and David [1:47]
12 Fugue Six: King David [2:59]

Book Two (Old Testament)
13 Prelude Seven: Job [0:43]
14 Fugue Seven: The Book of Proverbs [1:09]
15 Prelude Eight: The Little Book of Psalms (1) [2:41]
16 Fugue Eight: The Little Book of Psalms (2) [3:59]
17 Prelude Nine: Ecclesiasticus [2:37]
18 Fugue Nine: The Song of Songs [1:01]
19 Prelude Ten: Elijah [4:04]
20 Fugue Ten: Elisha [2:39]
21 Prelude Eleven: The Manetations of Jeremiah [1:21]
22 Fugue Eleven: Jeremiah [1:03]
23 Prelude Twelve: Isaiah (1) [1:57]
24 Fugue Twelve: Isaiah (2) [2:36]

Book Three (New Testament) 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us' (Gospel of St. John 1:14)
25 Prelude Thirteen [1:46]
26 Fugue Thirteen [1:19]
27 Prelude Fourteen [2:14]
28 Fugue Fourteen [1:11]
29 Prelude Fifteen [1:15]
30 Fugue Fifteen [1:33]
31 Prelude Sixteen [1:54]
32 Fugue Sixteen [0:30]
33 Prelude Seventeen [0:56]
34 Fugue Seventeen [2:07]
35 Prelude Eighteen: (Aria) The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ on the Cross [2:19]
36 Fugue Eighteen [0:42]

Book Four (New Testament) Landscapes of the Lamb
37 Fugue Nineteen [0:52]
38 Postlude Nineteen [0:40]
39 Fugue Twenty [0:50]
40 Postlude Twenty [0:44]
41 Fugue Twenty One [0:50]
42 Postlude Twenty One [0:40]
43 Fugue Twenty Two [0:55]
44 Postlude Twenty Two (Consonance) [0:31]
45 Fugue Twenty Three [0:27]
46 Postlude Twenty Three (Consonance) [0:28]
47 Parallel Fugue and Postlude Twenty Four (Unison) [4:05]

May or may not be one of the finest contemporary works for piano but for sheer scale of invention at least it must go on the shortlist.