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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
České tance I (Czech Dances I) JB 1:107 (1877) [13:43]
České tance II (Czech Dances II) , JB 1:114 (1879) [43:10]
Na břehu mořském – Vzpomínka (On the seashore – A reminiscence) JB 1:80 (1861) [5:20]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. 9-11 January 2015, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK
HYPERION CDA68062 [62:13]

Most of us know Smetana through his Má Vlast cycle of symphonic poems, especially Vltava, and his opera The Bartered Bride, or at least its overture. Chamber music enthusiasts know the two string quartets but I imagine most music-lovers have never come across his piano music, or even known that he had written a good deal of it. I certainly hadn’t. Yet when you consider that Brahms had not long before written Hungarian dances, and Dvorak wrote Slavonic dances, it seems obvious that the deeply nationalist Smetana would want to try his hand at Czech dances. In fact these are practically the last of his piano works and so are a kind of testament. He wrote them not long after completely losing his hearing. He had been a fine pianist and this comes out in these pieces: they may begin innocently enough but they often become extremely tricky and beyond the powers of most amateurs.

There are two books of them. The first is a set of four polkas. Smetana explained: ‘my efforts are directed towards idealizing the polka in particular, as Chopin did with the mazurka.’ On hearing these they are at first quite startlingly like Chopin in his mazurkas and other pieces in dance form: very pianistic with light clean textures, elegant piano figuration and using some of Chopin’s chromatic harmony though not quite with his haunting melancholy. As with Chopin, they are pictures of dances rather than danceable, as the fluid and occasionally irregular rhythms show. The first has Chopin’s ambiguous tonality, the second features an obsessive rhythm more in the style of Schumann, the third begins in a cheerful flowing way without shadows or clouds though it breaks off from this before reaching a brilliant conclusion. The fourth is melancholy with a middle section which is more agitated though based on the same material.

The second book contains ten pieces. Smetana has now extended his range to other kinds of dance and has changed his idiom to be closer to Liszt, who had been one of his mentors in earlier years. These pieces are miniature tone poems, longer than those in the first set, with generally two initial ideas and a contrasting middle section. The writing tends to get more elaborate as the piece proceeds and there is often a bravura climax with typically Lisztian figuration – in Medvěd (The bear) there are even blind octaves – leading to a lingering coda. Smetana drew on a collection of Czech songs and also the example of his neighbour, a retired teacher who was also an amateur violinist, who played his tunes and showed the dance steps to the composer. Some, such as Cibulička (The little onion) and Hulán (The lancer) are more songlike, while there are several fast stamping dances such as Dupák, Obkročák and Skočná. Performed as a complete set they are attractively varied; individually, several of them would make good encore pieces.

To complete a disc which would otherwise run for less than an hour we have On the seashore. This is a Lisztian concert study, an evocation of waves which rise increasingly higher while a poised melody soars above. I found myself thinking of Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit, though I doubt whether he knew this piece.

Garrick Ohlsson is a pianist who commands the grand style, as I know particularly from his recordings of the Busoni concerto (Telarc CD80207) and Brahms piano variations (review). He seems in complete sympathy with the idiom here and Hyperion has given him a clear and warm recording. There are informative notes by Nigel Simeone. Although there are several other recordings of each book, the only other current one of the two together is by Jitka Cechová, a regular Supraphon artist, who includes them on Volume 3 of her seven volume complete set of Smetana’s piano works (review). I haven’t heard this but it would be hard to excel Ohlsson’s fine version.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)
Book I
No. 1 Polka in F sharp minor: Non molto allegro [3:26]
No. 2 Polka in A minor: Moderato [2:44]
No. 3 Polka in F major: Allegro [3:40]
No. 4 Polka in B flat major: Lento [3:53]

Book II
No. 1 Furiant in A minor: Presto [5:30]
No. 2 Slepička (The little hen) in B flat major: Moderato [3:27]
No. 3 Oves (Oats) in A flat major: Andantino [5:16]
No. 4 Medvěd (The bear) in C major: Allegro [3:21]
No. 5 Cibulička (The little onion) in G minor: Moderato [4:56]
No. 6 Dupák in D major: Vivacissimo [3:37]
No. 7 Hulán (The lancer) in A major: Andantino [5:21]
No. 8 Obkročák in E flat major: Allegro [3:11]
No. 9 Sousedská in B major: Moderato [4:50]
No. 10 Skočná in F major: Vivace [3:41]



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