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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
České tance I (Czech Dances) JB 1:107 (1877) [13:43]
České tance 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
Reviewed as a Studio Master download from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA68062 [62:13]

When I first heard Garrick Ohlsson in the Busoni piano concerto 25 years ago I’d no idea he’d morph into the ‘pianistic prestidigitator’ we know today. Indeed, I make a point of seeking out his new albums; I’ve already praised his Scriabin and Griffes, the latter one of my top picks for 2013. Now he turns to the solo piano music of Bedřich Smetana, a composer best known for his operas, orchestral and chamber music. I suspect his two books of Czech Dances and the concert étude On the seashore are new to most listeners; they certainly are to me, which makes this one of my ‘innocent ear’ reviews.

There’s very little competition here; Jan Novotný recorded the second book of dances in 1972 (review), and Jitka Čechová did the full set in 2007 (review). Both are from Supraphon, whose Smetana series has now reached volume 6 (review). As for On the seashore it’s included in Kathryn Stott’s Chandos collection, which dates from 2006 (review). Reading my colleagues’ comments on this music I came away with the distinct impression that the Czech Dances are Smetana’s best pieces for solo piano. That, coupled with Ohlsson’s keyboard wizardry, augurs well for this new release.

As Nigel Simeone points out in his detailed liner-notes, Smetana was fascinated by the polka from an early age; the Bohemian country dance, which first appeared in the 1830s, became something of an urban craze in the decade that followed. Smetana’s Czech Dances: Four Polkas for piano, written in 1877 and published in 1879, are astonishing creations. Confident, full-bodied and beautifully wrought they are played here with all the warmth and rhythmic subtlety one could wish for. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from Ohlsson. Ditto Hyperion, who have pretty much cornered the market in superb solo piano recordings.

In this pianist’s hands the first polka in Book I has a jewelled loveliness, the second a blend of wistful circularity and unashamed virtuosity; both are played with affection and a fine ear for outward shape and inner detail. In the third polka one has to marvel at Ohlsson’s deftness – a combination of sophisticated touch and a seemingly intuitive feel for every phrase and dynamic shift – not to mention his unfailing ability to give each piece its own, well-defined character. The gentle musings that permeate the final polka are a case in point; as before there’s room for peacock displays as well, and Ohlsson is always good at those.

The second book of dances – ten in all – celebrates the vigour and diversity of Czech and Moravian dance forms. Smetana was aided in that fashionable enterprise by his neighbour, a retired teacher called Suchý. Smetana really flings the casement wide with this collection, letting in a veritable riot of rhythm and colour in the process. The opening Furiant – marked Presto – finds Ohlsson at his barnstorming best; indeed, the decibel count is frankly intimidating at times. That said, Ohlsson isn’t one of those self-seeking artists who seizes on the moment simply to generate a quick buzz; instead, he takes a broader, more considered view, and that creates a wonderful sense of scale and purpose.

These are rare, sought-after skills, to which must be added his ability to eke out every nuance or inflection in a given score; with these dances he also manages to reintroduce motifs in a way that seems utterly natural and spontaneous. In short, these are very organic performances, where each part is given due weight and the whole has pleasing proportions. This is not just about impeccable execution, as there’s far more to these delightful miniatures than mere technique. Take the second piece, The little hen, where superb articulation is supplemented by a quick wit and a rather endearing sense of humour.

There’s always a risk in ‘bitty’, single-genre programmes that the listener’s interest will peak too soon. Happily, that’s not the case here, for Smetana gives us plenty of variety, one piece complementing the next in both mood and tempo. Take Oats, for instance; marked Andantino, its gentle cadences come as a welcome respite after that earlier brilliance. In turn this is followed by the fearsome paw swipes and dark lumberings of The Bear. Even in the face of such assaults the recording shows no sign of stress or strain. Engineer Phil Rowlands has done an exemplary job with this one.

From the contrasting charms of The little onion – what a thrilling bass – to the remaining pieces there’s much to quicken the pulse and delight the ear. Take the atavistic Dupák for a start; it teems with inner detail, which makes for music of orchestral weight and complexity. True to form, Smetana then gives us the Schubertian tones and temperament of The lancer. Ohlsson does that lilt so well, the whole piece shaped and propelled with uncommon clarity and a sure sense of style. As for the concluding dances – Obkročák, Sousedská and Skočná – they’re despatched with an all-conquering brio that’s apt to leave one slack of jaw and weak of knee.

The final piece on this album is Na břehu mořském – Vzpomínka (On the seashore – A reminiscence). Written in 1861 it’s a moody take on the waves near Gothenburg, Sweden, where Smetana lived for a time. The usual laps and burbles won’t come as a surprise – it’s formulaic stuff – but the dark, tempestuous writing is guaranteed to impress. Indeed, the faithful timbres and fearless dynamics of this concert étude make it a perfect demo track for anyone putting a system through its paces. As for the performances – well, they’d surely buckle under the weight of added praise.

Lesser-known Smetana played with all the ardour and advocacy it needs; the sound is class-leading, too.

Dan Morgan

The Czech Dances
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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