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Vítězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
V Tatrách (In the Tatra Mountains) Symphonic Poem, Op. 26 (1902) [16:30]
Lady Godiva – Overture, Op. 41 (1907) [15:40]
O věčné touze (Eternal Longing), Op. 33 (1905) [20:37]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, 2016
NAXOS 8.573683 [52:47]

Novák's tone poems first crossed my path in the form of a battered secondhand Supraphon LP of these two tone poems. The Czech PO were conducted by the redoubtable Karel Šejna. He served these two Novák tone poems with a visionary possessed zeal that paralleled that of Beecham in his classic version of Delius's Song of the High Hills. Indeed, in these Novák pieces there is something of that ecstatic immersion in nature's arcana. Novák never once lets the mood slip - nature meets the human condition. The approach also typifies Alfvén's similarly styled Fourth Symphony where the sea serves as a vivid metaphor for erotic love. It would not have surprised me if Novák had included a vocalising mixed voice element as Alfvén had - solo voices in his case - but he did not. It was the Tatra mountains that took the life of a Polish composer of similar tastes to those of Novák - Mieczysław Karłowicz - who knew the Tatras from the Polish side of the range.

The Lady Godiva overture has something of a turbulent mindset. Again, it's a romantic piece but it has more derring-do about it than these two heady mystic-ecstatic tone poems. Its sense of narrative action is rather like Elgar's Froissart or Tchaikovsky's Hamlet (of which I recently heard Constant Lambert's exceptional 1940s recording on an old Dutton CD). The overture – long, at more than fifteen minutes - ends andante in a quiet glow and in the gleam of high strings. The liner-notes remind us that this piece pictures the gentle yet courageous Lady Godiva. The music's black high-drama, heard early on, speaks of her despotic husband, Count Leofric.

Eternal Longing is a natural successor to In the Tatra Mountains. As to its mood and manner much the same can be said as of the Tatra piece. Were the titles to have been exchanged I doubt that anyone would have blanched. Based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen about "the eternal longing" the score also links with a poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický. Edward Yadzinski in his taut little background note, proposes a link with the tone poems of Dvořák and Strauss but apart from the opulence of the orchestra in the case of Strauss I do not hear much of a resemblance. There is something of Strauss's Alpine Symphony in Eternal Longing. Perhaps a couple of episodes for solo violin also suggest the Strauss link. Intriguingly, around about 14:50, Novák sounds as if he had been impressed by Josef Suk's great and almost contemporaneous Asrael Symphony but given the dates it's mere coincidence. The ecstatic nature images - especially towards the end of this 20-minute piece - also prompt recollections of later British works also of a nature-hieratic temper: Bantock's Pagan Symphony (1923-28) and Bax's 1914 symphony Spring Fire.

This disc further buttresses and enhances the standing of Naxos, Falletta and Buffalo. Remember their Schmitt, Bartók, Respighi, Dohnányi and Griffes.

While the Novák enthusiast in me wished for his two late and completely neglected symphonies (Autumn and May) this is a noble entry into the Novák lists. It's a chance to show that this composer's music can and does shine in the hands of conductors and orchestras of other than Czech origin.

These are sound and sympathetic performances in eloquent recordings by Tim Handley. Even so, those who have caught the Novák bug should also add the classic Šejna recordings to their listening experience. This is in much the same way that Beecham's Delius demands to be heard even if you do have much better sounding recordings by Del Mar, Groves and Hickox.

There are alternatives (for example Chandos-Noseda and Alto/ClassicO-Bostock) but none of them are coupled as per this Naxos disc which has the advantage of uniting two of Novák's strongest tone poems.

Falletta and her allies at Buffalo and Naxos central should now look out Joseph Marx's gorgeous hour-long Herbstsymphonie. They made a fine job of Gličre's Il’ya Mouramets. The otherwise practically unrecorded and luxurious Marx work would make a natural next step. The Marx is due to be heard in London in November 2017 with Jurowski and the LPO.

Rob Barnett



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