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Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Pan, Op. 43 (1910) [54:43]
Dimitri TCHESNOKOV (b. 1982)
La Neige – Deux Études (2003) [11:48]
Patrick Hemmerlé (piano)
rec. Temple Saint-Marcel, Paris, 2016
INDÉSENS INDE097 [66:34]

I’ve recently reviewed Patrick Hemmerlé’s recording of Vitězslav Novák’s early Variations on a theme by Schumann, a work uncharacteristic of the more mature composer but nevertheless interesting in its charting of his early affiliations with the German Romantic school. Now he turns to the significantly more challenging Pan, one of Novák’s most expansive and wide-ranging piano works, and what is, in effect a nearly hour-long five-movement tone poem probably still best-known in its orchestral guise.

Nature writing and the quest for human love are the twin motors of Pan, music of longing and rapture, both of which elements the young French pianist evokes very well. He is consistently faster than Margaret Fingerhut’s Chandos performance, which aligns him, temporally, at least with the pioneering recording of František Rauch (review). There are very few divergencies in tempo relationships between the two – the only exception is in the fourth movement, The Forest, where Hemmerlé is a minute slower – and it seems not unreasonable that he may have patterned the performance after Rauch’s. That said, Rauch is consistently the more mysterious and full of latent intensity in the Prologue but I liked the spatial sense and luminous distance conjured in Mountains where the Frenchman’s terraced dynamics pay dividends, the crisp, clear playing sounding avid and alive. Rauch remains the more graphic interpreter of the stormy The Sea and he’s more characterful and remorseless too in his wave-like determinism. Hemmerlé however acquits himself well in the finale and longest movement, the exacting Woman, with its driving and nervous intensity and its barely concealed uncertainties, infatuations, dualities and fears.

So, this is fine, thoughtful, accomplished playing, though it doesn’t tell us much about Pan that Rauch hadn’t. The pianist has selected a single coupling, The Snow, two etudes, by Dimitri Tchesnokov, who was born in 1982. This was a youthful work, composed when he was barely 21 and in the circumstances the coupling may seem very odd. But in fact, the first of the Etudes sounds very much like Novák’s The Sea, though it’s the Chopinesque inheritance that’s most audible. The music is unashamedly cast in the broadly romantic tradition, the second Etude more overtly expressive. Despite having been written almost a century after Pan, The Snow reveals correspondences and cross-references that do, in fact, make the coupling rather apt and indeed ingenious.

The recording is just a touch hard for my liking, but I wouldn’t let that put you off if you don’t want Rauch’s 3-CD Novák box. Without question, you will hear a splendid performance of Pan in this new disc.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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