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Richard Novák (bass) - Portrait
rec. 1975-2003
Texts for the German songs (CD 2 tr. 1-11) with Czech translations, and texts for the Czech songs (CD 2 tr. 12-25) with English translations enclosed
SUPRAPHON SU4206-2 [74:02 + 78:07]

Born in 1931, Czech bass Richard Novák has been active in various opera houses since 1954. He was still singing in concert with the Czech Philharmonic in February 2016 when he was almost 85. This portrait twofer spans 32 years of his career. Comparing the earliest recording with the latest, one marvels at the consistency of his voice. You hear basically the same voice characteristics in Banco’s aria from Macbeth and Fiesco’s aria from Simone Boccanegra: a sonorous bass with both heft and lyrical softness, steady and well-articulated. Having sung more than 150 roles, he has been versatile, to say the least, but the Czech composers have been very close to his heart: Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů. Verdi was another favourite. No fewer than four of his arias are presented here.

But Novák begins with Mozart and Leporello’s catalogue aria. Here he sings with a lot of nuance, and he characterises well without exaggerations. His is a serious Leporello. His reading of Vodnik’s aria from Rusalka is deeply moving and beautiful. He recorded the role complete five years later, and was just as good then. Gremin’s aria from the last act of Eugene Onegin is one of the great solos for a bass. Again, Novák sings with great beauty and a lot of soft nuance—a lyrical reading sung with great warmth—and he has the low bottom note. Ruslan’s aria is intense and lively. When we move forward in the Russian repertoire, his Boris Godunov portrait reveals a tormented tsar, deeply involved but not in the histrionic tradition of Chaliapin or Christoff. Dapertutto’s Scintille, diamant, with its preceding recitative, is another distinct portrait. It is sung in Czech but the character leaps out of the speakers with impressive presence. Philip II in Don Carlos is another tormented ruler, and this, together with Novák’s Boris, is one of the greatest impersonations in this review of important operatic characters.

I briefly mentioned Fiesco in Simone Boccanegra. Juxtaposing it with the recording of Banco’s aria from Macbeth —32 years older—is a lesson in cultivating preservation of a marvellous voice. Both readings should be a model for singers of a later generation how to sing this music. Walter’s aria from the first act of Luisa Miller is a surprising choice for this anthology. It is hardly a repertoire opera, but since it definitely belongs to my favourite Verdi operas, I am happy to have it included here. The singer is clearly in the same class as Giorgio Tozzi on my old favourite recording from the 1960s.

Wotan’s farewell evokes memories of Hans Hotter. Novák has the same care for the words and the same sensitivity to nuance even though their voices are miles apart when it comes to the actual sounds.

The final aria is from one of Richard Novák’s favourite parts, the Forester’s monologue from the end of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. He sang it again on that February evening with the Czech Philharmonic in 2016 and he recorded it for Supraphon in 1979. One can feel his involvement in the role.

The second disc is devoted to songs. Also in this field Richard Novák had catholic tastes. Hugo Wolf’s intricate lieder are not easy to come to terms with, but Novák’s readings are intelligent and sensitive, and he is as nuanced as in the operatic repertoire. Although he is a true bass, he has the ease and lightness of tone one associates with a baritone. Where many basses tend to be ponderous, his liveliness and flexibility allow him to find the right expressions in each song. His soft singing is as beguiling here as in the opera arias, while there is no lack of power and intensity in the more dramatic songs. This also goes for the six songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Der Atlas is dark and brooding, Ihr Bild inward and touching. Maybe Das Fischermädchen is a bit unwieldy but Am Meer is truly beautiful, sung softly yet with intensity.

Jaroslav Křička may be an unknown name to many readers. I first encountered him with this very song cycle some five years ago, when I reviewed a disc with songs from Eastern Europe performed by mezzo-soprano Eva Garajová. I was immediately fascinated by Northern Nights and regretted that there were no translations of the texts. On the present disc there are translations. Following them, I understood even better how marvellous the songs are. There is hypnotic beauty in Albatros, and with orchestral accompaniment the fascination becomes even greater. Lullaby is enchanting and Richard Novák ends it magically in a near whisper. The concluding Scandinavian Rocks is really intense. I only wonder what the albatross is doing in the northern hemisphere. Its abode should be the Antarctic.

Dvořák’s Biblical Songs are far better known. They were written during his sojourn in New York in the mid-1890s, originally with piano accompaniment. He later orchestrated the first five. The manuscript was lost, and then rediscovered and published only in 1914. The same year Vilém Zemánek orchestrated the remaining five, but there exist other versions as well. There is no indication what version is used here. This live recording was made in 2001, when Richard Novák was 70, but the vitality, the joy, the beauty of his singing certainly belie his age. Without knowing the recording date, it might be thought to have been made 30 years earlier. The final song, Oh, sing unto the Lord a joyful song is indeed a worthy finale to these utterly attractive discs. When the presenter at that concert in February expressed his admiration about his high quality singing at so advanced an age, Richard Novák answered: “We don’t do it. It comes … from somewhere …”—and pointed his finger upwards. We all have to be grateful to the Lord who made Richard Novák sing so marvellously for so many years.

These two discs are truly valuable documents of the art of a great singer!

Göran Forsling


CD 1 Opera Arias [74:02]

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Don Giovanni (1787):
1. Madamina, il catalogo č questo (Leporello Act 1) [5:29]
Antonin DVORAK (1841 – 1904)
Rusalka (1901):
2. Běda! Běda! Ubohá Rusalko bledá! (Vodnik Act 2) [5:39]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Eugene Onegin (1878):
3. Ljubvi vse vozrasty pokorny (Gremin Act 3) [5:39]
Mikhail Ivanovich GLINKA (1804 – 1857)
Ruslan and Ludmila (1837):
4. Vremen’ ot vechnoy temnoty (Ruslan Act 2) [537]
Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
Boris Godunov (1874):
5. Dostig ja vysshej vlasti (Boris’s Monologue Act 2) [5:48]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880)
Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881):
6. Allez! Ah! C’est moi qu’on défie? … Scintille, diamant (Dapertutto Act 2) [4:21]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Don Carlos (1867:
7. Ella giammai m’amň (Philip II, Act 3) [8:26]
Simone Boccanegra (1857):
8. A te l’estremo addio ... Il lacerato spirito (Fiesco, Prologue) [5:05]
Macbeth (1847):
9. Studia il passo, o mio figlio (Banco Act 2) [4:31]
Luisa Miller (1849):
10. Ah, tutto m’arride ... Il mio sangue la vita darei (Walter Act 1) [4:43]
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Die Walküre (1870):
11. Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind (Wotan Act 3) [13:32]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928)
The cunning little vixen (1924):
12. Je to pohádka či Pravda? (Revírník Act 3) [4:27]

CD 2 Songs [78:07]

Hugo WOLF (1860 – 1903)
1. Verborgenheit [2:58]
2. Denk’ es, o Seele! [3:22]
3. Neue Liebe [3:19]
4. Wo find‘ ich Trost [5:11]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Schwanengesang (Heinrich Heine (5-10), Johann Gabriel Seidl (11))
5. Der Atlas [2:27]
6. Ihr Bild [3:11]
7. Das Fischermädchen [1:57]
8. Die Stadt [3:10]
9. Am Meer [4:28]
10. Der Doppelgänger [4:35]
11. Die Taubenpost [3:26]
Jaroslav KŘIČKA (1882 – 1969)
Northern Nights, Op. 14 (1909-10) [12:37]
12. Albatross [3:59]
13. Swan [2:45]
14. Lullaby [2:56]
15. Scandinavian Rocks [2:46]
Antonin DVORAK
Biblical Songs, Op. 99 (B 185, 1894) [26:32]
16. Darkness and thunderclouds are round about Him [2:11]
17. Lord my shield, my refuge and hope art Thou [2:01]
18. Hear, o hear my prayer, Lord my God [3:01]
19. Oh, my shepherd is the Lord [3:04]
20. Songs of gladness will I sing Thee [2:34]
21. Hear, oh Lord, my bitter cry [2:55]
22. By the shore of the river Babylon [3:06]
23. Oh, Lord, have mercy and turn Thou Thy face to me [3:02]
24. My eyes will I to the hills lift up [2:08]
25. Oh, sing unto the Lord a joyful song [2:06]
Richard Novák (bass),
CD 1: Brno Janacek Opera Orchestra; Brno Janacek Opera Chorus (tr. 8)/Frantisek Jilek ( tr. 1-3, 5, 7, 9-12); Miroslav Honka (tr. 4); Jan Stych (tr. 6); Jaroslav Kyzlink (tr. 8)
CD 2: Gerhard Zeller (piano) (tr. 1-11); Brno Philharmonic/Frantisek Jilek (tr. 12-15); PKF-Prague Philharmonia/Tomas Hanus (tr. 16-25)
Rec at the Stadion Studio Brno 1978 (CD 1 tr. 1, 2, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12), 1971 (CD 1 tr. 9), 1977 (CD 1 tr. 4), Czech Radio Brno 1983 (CD 1 tr. 3), 1982 (CD 1 tr. 6) and live at the Janacek Theatre, Brno, October 9, 2003 (CD 1 tr. 8); at the Domovina Studio, Prague, August 1975 (CD 2 tr. 1-11), December 1975 (CD 2 tr. 12-15), and live at the Rudolfinum, Prague, October 13, 2001 (CD 2 tr. 16-25)


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