Vitezslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
In the Tatras (1902) [17.10]
South Bohemian Suite (1937) [30.04]
Eight Nocturnes for voice and orchestra Op. 39 (1908) [29.28]
Daniela Straková (soprano)
Carlsbad Symphony Orchestra/Douglas Bostock
rec. Lazne III, Carlsbad, Czech Republic, January 1998
ALTO ALC 1199 [76.42]
This disc originally appeared on the ClassicO label in a somewhat amateur-looking format with scruffy picture and rather weird font and presentation. It’s an excellent move on Alto’s part to have Paul Arden-Taylor re-master it and to add the wonderful symphonic poem In the Tatras which failed to make it on the original disc (but which appeared on another ClassicO Novák disc). Also we have a picture of the Tatra Mountains on the cover and a new much better presented essay by Jeffrey Davis. Alto has also recently recorded a disc of Novák’s piano music (ALC 1113), which is worth looking out for.
Davis states quite rightly that Novák is an ‘undeservedly neglected composer’ and I for one have looked out for his music now for over twenty years. He is rarely performed in the UK but there have been a discs of his works that are available in good quality versions for all of that time: try the Chandos-Pešek disc and various reissues of the classic Karel Sejna recordings on Supraphon. My interest was sparked when I was student, by a Radio 3 talk about him in, I think, 1974. When I was in Prague in 1980 I recall excitedly finding a Czech LP of The South Bohemian Suite but its quality - both pressing and performance - left much to be desired. Nevertheless I was hooked.
In the Tatras is a wonderful work; I’ve loved it for years. This performance does not quite grasp the atmosphere as much as Libor Pešek and the RLPO on Virgin Classics CDC 7243 5 45251 2 4 from 1997 (not available at present except via ArkivMusic). The Pešek is a favourite version of mine. While the Carlsbad orchestra is not quite so technically proficient as Pešek’s much more orchestral detail is heard in this performance which is a little more deliberately paced. The opening rising phrase is entirely memorable and heart-achingly beautiful. I suppose that Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony might be considered an influence but Novák came first, by ten years in fact, and anyway Novák’s piece is gloriously textured and structured. I much prefer it to Strauss’s overblown giant. There is much more to In the Tatras than just mountains as the emotional searching of the music signals.
If In the Tatras demonstrates the composer’s love of mountains and that glorious range in Poland especially, then the South Bohemian Suite - not to be confused with the much earlier Slovak Suite - shows his love of the landscape and people of his native land. Its four movements are a Pastoral, described on the back of the CD case as almost like Delius’s Song of the High Hills, then Forests and Ponds with its listless orchestration and a powerful and memorable March of the Hussites which has a vigorous ostinato bass. The Suite ends with an original idea, an Epilogue - To My Homeland. This is brief and reminisces around the music of the opening Pastoral. Dating from 1937, when the country was overrun by the Nazis, the opening is a set of variants on a Moravian folk-song. The second movement is based on a further popular melody and the March uses a Hussite Chorale Ye Warriors of God. One cannot but see a courageous stand being made in music against the violence of the times; even a call to the Polish people to rise against this violence.
The Eight Nocturnes for voice and orchestra are not in fact all slow or indeed nocturnal in sound. There are some faster and exciting moments especially in the Totentanz setting of Oscar Weiner and in Bright Night, a setting of Richard Dehmel. The booklet provides the texts for only the first and last songs - that’s better than the ClassicO version which provided none. The latter of these – The Christ Child’s Lullaby - comes from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Whilst Novák’s setting does not sound at all like Mahler, one feels Mahler’s influence elsewhere in the cycle. This is especially in the orchestration with its light high string and woodwind writing in more delicate moments and its chamber music quality despite the large orchestra employed.
Rob Barnett is well quoted on the back of the CD when he says that the wonderful Daniela Straková “creamily floats the long lines … with an engaging sense of joyous discovery”. If you are a listener new to Novák this latter will also certainly apply to you. He is also quoted saying that the disc is a “compulsive purchase” a comment, which at this budget price, I would wholeheartedly endorse.
  Gary Higginson
Hooked on Novák since the 1970s. This budget price collection is a compulsive purchase.