Dawn of Czech Modernism

Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.2 in D minor [18:18]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Piano Quintet H.35* [18:49]
Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Piano Quintet in A minor, op.12 [27:56]
Graffe String Quartet (štěpán Graffe and Lukáš Bednařík (violins), Lukáš Cybulski (viola), Michal Hreňo (cello)); Michiko Otaki (piano)
rec. Czech Radio Studio 1, Brno, Czech Republic, 2-4 August 2010 (Martinů, Novák); 7-8 January 2012 (Smetana)
*World première recording
Czech modernism which flourished between the two world wars embraced all the arts. Musically however, its roots go back quite a deal further to the late nineteenth century. This disc highlights three works that are fine examples of this “movement”.
The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia have an extraordinary tradition of being the cradle of much that was ‘new’ in music. Musical history is teeming with the names of composers who originated or gravitated to that part of Europe seeing it as a place for experimentation, innovation and for receptive audiences for such ideas. The baroque period was particularly fruitful in producing outstanding composers whose names are still well known today including Adam   Michna of Otradovice, the Bendas, Biber, Brixi, Černohorsky, the Rejchas, Roessler-Rosetti, Stamic, Tuma, Vejvanovsky, Jan Zach and Zelenka, to name but a few; in the 18th century Jan Dismas Zelenka’s name was mentioned as a worthy successor to Bach. Mozart had his operas Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito premièred at the Estates Theatre in Prague, staying there with his friend, composer František Xaver Dušek and family in their villa Bertramka. Indeed Dušek taught Mozart’s son Karl Thomas Mozart.
Add to the above composers the names of the three on the present disc and those of Dvořák, Fibich, Janáček and Suk and nearer our own times those of Schulhoff, Krasa, Klein, Haas, Ullmann, Haba and Eben and it is plain to see the huge contribution this small country has made to world musical history. Many of these composers pushed the boundaries in their time to achieve new ways of performing music. People like Schulhoff used jazz in several of his compositions in the 1920s and Pavel Haas even incorporated a jazz band into one movement of a string quartet! It was natural therefore that this tradition of innovation should again assert itself towards the end of the 19th century.
The disc begins with Smetana’s second string quartet. The author of the booklet notes accompanying the disc, Miloš Schnierer explains that “daring and progressive tonal/harmonic devices appear in his (Smetana’s) late creative period, paving the way for the future” and that this is particularly in evidence in this quartet. What a wonderful work it is and I especially love the second movement which is full of folk polka rhythms. It is the use of folk music that links all three of the works on the disc. The quartet was given its première in 1884 and its innovative aspects were admired by none other than Arnold Schoenberg.
Twenty-seven years later when Bohuslav Martinů wrote his Piano Quintet things had moved on apace and the Martinů style was a world away from Smetana’s. The first thing to say about this work is that it is extraordinary to come across a work by Martinů that is only receiving its first recording over one hundred years after its composition! Martinů was only twenty-one when he composed it in 1911 but his unmistakable musical signature is there from the very first notes; this work could be by no one else. With only two movements the quintet is just 18 minutes in length but abounds in ideas and has some exquisite tunes, many of them folk-based. The opening of the second movement is as absolutely gorgeous as it is heartfelt. This quintet precedes his official No.1 which can be heard with the second on Naxos 8.557861: Karel Košárek with the Martinu Quartet.
Novák was a composer, who as someone who was passionate about his country changed his name from Victor to the Czech equivalent Vitězslav. His piano quintet, written in 1896 at the age of 26 was his first to incorporate folk rhythms following a holiday hiking in Wallachia, the border region of Moravia and Slovakia. What I find particularly interesting about this quintet are the elements in it that remind one of Smetana at the same time as there is much that looks forward to Martinů. Once again it is the second movement that made an impact on me with its sad quotation of a 16th century folk song which refers to Novák’s unrequited love for a singer Josefina Javůrková. The third and final movement with the subtitle “Slovak” invokes a folk festival, thrusting us back from sadness to joy. This work placed Novák firmly at the forefront of turn of the century Czech musical history. Yet it was the first time I’d ever heard it and I bet I’m not alone in that though it has been on a now deleted ASV CD DCA 998 first issued in 1998.
There is so much wonderful music to be discovered. Concert programmers owe it to composers and audiences alike to uncover some of these less heard works rather than always sticking to core repertoire that can be accessed in so many other ways.
The Graffe Quartet played wonderfully as did Japanese pianist Michiko Otaki. It follows on from their same label and same artists’ recording of Martinů’s second Piano Quintet (review). The present disc, released under Czech Radio’s own label, was a joy to listen to from start to finish.
Steve Arloff 

A joy to listen to from start to finish.