Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Three Salon Polkas Op.7 [11:43]
Three Poetic Polkas Op.8 [10:04]
Polka in F minor (c.1852-53, finished 1883) [2:33]
Polka in A major (c.1852-53, finished 1883) [5:14]
Souvenirs of Bohemia in the form of Polkas Op.12 [9:30]
Polkas in E major (c.1852-53) [2:55]
Polka in G minor (c.1852-53) [5:26]
Souvenirs of Bohemia in the form of Polkas Op.13 [8:01]
András Schiff (piano)
rec. January 1998, Teldec Studios, Berlin
WARNER APEX 2564 67275-6 [56:36]

Schiff’s recording of Smetana’s Polkas was made in 1998 for Teldec and earned respectful comments at the time of its first release. Its reappearance now on Apex presents a handy solution for those in search of an inexpensive and thoughtful selection, though the performances leave me somewhat less than excited.

Schiff, as ever, plays with great clarity and precision. There’s no gainsaying his articulation, or his digital control. What one finds consistently lacking however — or what I find consistently lacking — is a sense of vitality, rhythmic wit and an energising sense of characterisation. All too often Schiff offers a lateral, almost literal response.

Pianists like Jan Novotný, whose Supraphon recording was so singularly successful, have long since demonstrated that the Polkas possess individual vitality and charm, and it’s up to the performer to bring a concomitant understanding to their performance. More recently Radoslav Kvapil (Regis RRC4005—in an anthology of Czech piano music) also brings perception superior to Schiff’s. And it’s not that Kvapil and Novotný are Czech and Schiff Hungarian: it’s the approach to rhythm and inner voicings that separates the men from the boys here.

In the Op.8 set Schiff sounds earthbound and metrically fussy. He is too concerned with beauty of tone for its own sake, with the result that he doesn’t begin to replicate the insouciant narrative excavated by Kvapil in the central section of the E flat major. He is grand seigniorial in the G minor, where we find Kvapil and Novotný touching, and in the concluding A flat major he sounds merely lumpy; where he misses Kvapil’s left hand pointing, harmonic trickiness, and sense of fun.

Schiff sounds rather superficial in the first of the Souvenirs of Bohemia in the form of Polkas Op.12. He cedes to both Czech performers in respect of crispness of articulation, insight into dance imperatives and the sheer sense of Smetana’s harmonic drollery.

In the second set of Souvenirs of Bohemia Op.13 Schiff’s rather heavy rubato isn’t conducive to conveying the energy of the music, and the playing lacks a singing element too, for all its localised delicacy of colouring. So, don’t expect to find Kvapil’s energising fillips in the second of the set of two.

Regrettably then, for all the attractions of his big-league status, Schiff is not the best guide to these lovely, but tricky-to-convey Polkas.

Jonathan Woolf

Schiff is not the best guide to these lovely, but tricky-to-convey Polkas.