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Vitězslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)
Variations on a theme by Schumann, Op.4 (1893) [19:58]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Schumann, Op.9 (1854) [19:32]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphonic Etudes (1834) [32:02]
Patrick Hemmerlé (piano)
rec. 2015, Victor de los Angeles Concert Hall, Madrid
ORPHEUS OR3012-9720 [72:19]

French pianist Patrick Hemmerlé has been recording Novák. A companion disc, which I’ve also heard for review purposes, contains that passionate and expansive work Pan, and I enjoyed that performance greatly, though it seems – not unreasonably – to be closely patterned after the classic František Rauch recording. For the Spanish label Orpheus, he turns to the Czech composer’s early Variations on a theme by Schumann of 1893, and it forms one of three works in the recital that does two things: firstly, it plays to his strengths in German or Germanic music and second it forms a Schumann-based thematic triptych.

Novák was still a student when he wrote his youthful homage to Schumann and it was only late in his life that he somewhat reluctantly admitted it to the catalogue of his works. There is a theme which is followed by eight variations and a finale. It’s a work so saturated in adoration of its source that there are very few signs of the nascent composer to be heard. The language and accent of the music is Schumannesque to the core. This can work deliciously in the third variation, the Feuillet’d’Album, and in the vigorously youthful Scherzo, though the heart of the work is the relatively expansive Elegia, played by Hemmerlé with deft recognition of its relatively modest objectives. If the last variation, Alla Schumann, could act as an endorsement of the work as a whole, the most technically demanding material is saved for last, a powerful Finale that can sound a little blocky from time to time – assuredly not the pianist’s fault. In all, though uncharacteristic of the mature composer’s work it’s valuable to hear this youthful work, especially when played so well.

Brahms was actually younger than Novák when he wrote his Op.9, a work the Czech composer must have known; they share the same name, for one thing. But in terms of development Brahms was inevitably a far more complete composer and given his own pianistic prowess, he wrote in virtuoso-sized chunks. Hemmerlé voices tenderly and is particularly effective in the variations that call for introspective, songful lyricism, though quite properly doesn’t stint the work’s more celebratory vigour. As for Schumann himself, it’s the Symphonic Etudes that crown the disc. It’s thoughtful, intelligent playing with a well-articulated third variation, a sensitive fifth and a smiling eleventh. He interpolates the fourth and fifth posthumous variations, and he is very honest in noting that this is because he likes them best.

The main focus here is the Novák though its appeal is rather specialist. The programming however makes interlocking sense, the pianist’s own booklet notes are attractively clean-cut, and only the slightly over-bright recording counts in any way against the undertaking.

Jonathan Woolf



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